The Unforeseen

2008, Movie, NR, 93 mins


The title makes Laura Dunn's documentary about suburban sprawl sound like a horror movie, and in a very real way it is: Dunn's elegant, full-length debut presents a frightening and powerful argument against the kind of reckless, profit-driven land development that not only threatens natural resources, but life itself.

For four years, Dunn followed the tail-end of an enviro-war raging on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. For decades, the small, idyllic university city was home to an enduring and outspoken countercultural community that found itself increasingly at odds with people like savvy, self-made real-estate developer Gary Bradley. In 1969, Bradley turned his back on the unpredictable, hardscrabble life of his West Texas dirt-farming family and came to the University of Texas to learn all he could about real estate and development. He learned enough to see that Austin was on the verge of a building boom: The construction of the enormous Barton Creek Square Mall was a sure sign of things to come. Ironic given the mall's subsequent negative environmental impact, Austin's largest indoor shopping center was named after the region's beloved Barton Creek aquifer and pool, a pristine natural water source that not only supplied fresh water but served as a community gathering point. In the 1980s, Bradley built the Circle C Ranch, an ambitious, 4,000-acre planned community that quickly became Austin's fastest-selling subdivision. But it was expensive to build and maintain, and just when Bradley should have been seeing his first profits, the savings and loan crisis struck and he was instead faced with financial ruin. To save himself, Bradley struck a Faustian bargain with massive transnational mining company Freeport-McMoRan, which was looking to get into land development in the Austin area by building its own subdivision -- right next to the Barton Creek aquifer. In exchange for access to Bradley's connections, Freeport would help finance Circle C Ranch. Freeport's reputation as one of the earth's great despoilers -- one interviewee describes the destruction wrought by Freeport in places like Papua New Guinea as "biblical" -- was common knowledge among environmental groups, particularly Earthfirst!, and the idea that the company would not only be buying up and subdividing one of the state's premier garden spots but also endangering Barton Creek became a rallying point for an emerging eco-movement.

Dunn recounts the ensuing battle to halt development and save the aquifer through carefully assembled interviews and local news reports, and her surprisingly gripping narrative unfolds like a Capra-esque epic full of moral dilemmas and questionable characters (like the shadowy "pro-development" lobbyist who refuses to allow his face to be shown; we see only his hands as he glues together tiny bombs for the model jet fighter he's building) that goes to the heart of what it means to be part of an American-style democracy. Through ingenious animation and straight talk from experts, Dunn also shows exactly how overdevelopment and planned subdivisions destroy natural resources, poison the land and endanger the agriculture the region depends on for food and commerce (cancer becomes the dominant metaphor). And while the recurring image of the bewildered cowboy walking the blighted landscape comes uncomfortably close to that crying Native American of old, Lee Daniel's cinematography lends a grand, tragic quality to the disturbing facts and figures. The title is taken from Wendell Berry's poem "Santa Clara Valley," from the collection Sabbaths, in which he envisions a grim "new earth... made entirely according to plan," and laments the unforeseen consequences. It's a perfectly fitting epigram to a fine and important film. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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