The Unforseen, Starring Willie Nelson, Ann Richards, Ronald Reagan and a Cast of Thousands

Produced by local hero Terrence Malick and Robert Redford, director Laura Dunn‘s documentary, The Unforeseen, may have been the best thing to see at SXSW Film this year. Not just because the smart, beautiful film— which illustrates the struggles to develop (and defend) an area of Austin known as Barton Springs—is excellent in its ability to depict a city on the edge of great change. It was the reactions of the Austin audiences that made its inclusion in the festival so interesting.

For example, appearances by Willie Nelson and the former Governor Ann Richards (who died recently) were met with loving applause. But many others were not so lucky. Boos and hisses accompanied Ronald Reagan, and the man who replaced Richards, current President George W. Bush. And angry, vehement disapproval was lavished repeatedly upon the men who might be considered the good-ol’-boy bad guys of the film: Gary Bradley, whose attempts to create a sprawling community near a natural spring set the film’s events in motion; and Jim Bob Moffett, whose company Freeport-McMoran is responsible for pollution on an epic, worldwide scale. It was occasionally hard to even hear what these guys were saying over the comments and noise from the crowd at the Paramount.

In fact, the reaction at Friday’s screening was so strong that Dunn felt it necessary to defend her subjects and her methods at the Q&A session that followed. (One guess as to the moment that necessitated her defense: Bradley’s teary description of his mother’s burial caused one unimpressed audience member to bark back, “Suck the karma!”) She should certainly be commended for her techniques. If her interview subjects occasionally come off badly, it seems clear that, in local parlance, she simply gave them enough rope to hang themselves. And she’s very skillful at illustrating the many disparate issues at play—the personal and political motivations, the statistical and economic realities—by weaving together a number of very different filmmaking techniques. One moment she’s editing archive public access video of an all night city council meeting into a 5-minute essay on grassroots activism; the next she’s demonstrating the water needs of Circle C Ranch, Bradley’s proposed insta-suburb, by animating the many layers of a planning map.

Lee Daniels‘ elegiac cinematography ties it all together throughout, and the result is thought-provoking and lovely. (Malick’s legacy as a director is deeply felt; fans of Days of Heaven and Badlands will certainly recognize a poetic, wandering similarity, as well as the occasionally disappointing indulgence of sentimentality.) Special kudos should be paid to whoever it was that convinced Hutto farmer Curtis Peterson to participate in the production. Surrounded on all sides by development, he puts a sun worn, human face on the dangers of “progress” like this. One can’t help but wonder how much longer he can hold out in his way of life, or where he will go when it is gone.

The Unforeseen will tour a number festivals and is scheduled for a run on Redford’s Sundance Channel in 2008. But don’t be disappointed if, when you see it, you don’t get an audience as involved as the one down here.

-Bryan Christian

Leave a Reply