For residents of Santa Barbara, few subjects rival the provocative power of the debate over the pros and cons of land development. With the possible exception of water, “growth” is the issue that strikes the deepest nerves in our part of the country and the cause-whether for or against-that keeps the most people actively engaged in local politics. But Santa Barbara is far from the only place in America that has had to face the double-edged sword of development.
In Austin, Texas the 30-year history of public discussion and political maneuvering behind the development of Barton Springs, a series of natural pools, has become the topic of a new documentary film, The Unforeseen, which screens at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday, July 23. The film, produced by screen legends Robert Redford and Terrence Malick, is the work of a relatively young director, Laura Dunn, who takes a remarkably ambitious approach to the material. Blending recent interviews with archival footage, aerial photography, and computer-generated graphics, Dunn’s movie eschews voice-over narration in favor of an immersive and meditative method of storytelling that leaves the viewer with as many questions as answers. From the uncanny choices made by the interviewees-one powerful lobbyist agreed to be filmed while assembling and painting miniature bombs for a model airplane-to the spirited rhetoric of activists from the 1960s and 1970s, The Unforeseen presents an unparalleled overview of the great American “growth wars” of the late 20th century.
I spoke with director Laura Dunn by phone recently from her home in Austin, where she is expecting her second child.
Documentaries take a lot of work to complete. How was it making this one? The film took a year longer to make than I expected, in part because my child, who is three years old now, was born in the middle of the editing. I was very pregnant at the end of filming, and if you look at the footage of the interview with Robert Redford, which was done on my actual due date, you can see he’s maybe reacting to it a little bit. He’s also thinking about when he was very young, just learning to swim, so maybe that’s in there, too.
What made you choose water as something to make a film about? The subject of water was really Terrence Malick’s idea. It was like a philosophical premise for a documentary, which was a great gift to me. There is Barton Springs as the natural resource that God gave us, and then there’s what we’re doing with it. Barton Springs is a remarkable thing to study, because it reveals a lot to look at an ecosystem over time. And even before all of this got started, Malick was already my favorite filmmaker.
Your film makes great use of archival footage. How did you get that part of it together? It was an incremental process. I got hold of 150 hours of 1970s newscast footage, and I had some great finds through archival research, but a lot of that research was tedious. The ratio of usable stuff to total material was pretty bad-there was a lot of junk. But the archival footage allowed me to portray the “growth wars,” which I felt were an important part of the story.
The Unforeseen has a noticeable style to it. Was that something you intended? Part of the credit for the film’s visual style should go to Lee Daniel, the cinematographer. From my perspective, the style was an outgrowth of working for Terrence Malick, who inspired me to create a meditative space with it, rather than a traditional narrative film. I always thought of myself as making this film for him. That the idea for this wasn’t mine and that the film was for Malick-those things were both liberating stylistically.
You don’t have voice-over narration, and the film is full of visual surprises. That’s because I wanted to make a film that wasn’t documentary-based. I had a great teacher at Yale named Michael Roemer who helped me to understand early on that it’s necessary to see the art in reality, and that for all films, there has to be integrity in the telling of the story. These are the aesthetic perceptions of reality that underpin all art, not just documentary. I have been frustrated at times with the position of documentary even as it has gained some success. When I started making this movie, one thing that was on my mind was the question, “Why has documentary film become restricted in its nature?” This film allowed me the opportunity to connect with the larger issues about documentary that I had become concerned with.
You show both sides of the development debate very effectively. How did you manage to do that? Development is a universal problem and it should transcend any single point of view or imagined solution. If I’m preaching in this film, what I am preaching is “Love thy neighbor.” I wasn’t striving for “balance,” necessarily, because I find the whole idea of balance to be kind of small-minded. The issues and how people feel about them go deeper than balance, and to get at them you have to dive into them.
When I first wrote about the film on our Web site, I got a long comment from someone identifying themselves as “Austinite” who said that two things were wrong about the film. One was that the water supply in Austin is actually great, and has not been compromised. The second is that aerial photography makes all subdivisions look awful, so the use of that was unfair. How would you answer these criticisms? As far as the water supply question is concerned, Austinite may not have a comprehensive view. Austin’s drinking water is drawn from Lake Travis. It’s the dried up wells to the southwest of Austin, and the water situation in Hays County-that’s tragic. Barton Creek wells are mostly dry now. And beyond that, there’s a big difference between drinking water and environmental water, which has been even more affected. So, yes, there is plenty of potable drinking water in Austin, and yes, the city is cutting water off from other places that need it. In the words of another film on this subject, “It’s Chinatown.”
And the idea that all aerial views make development look ugly or even cancerous? The aerial views are very compelling precisely because this is the type of thing that you can’t see from your backyard. The scale of it just doesn’t appear in that way. That’s part of why I made the film, so that this phenomenon could be seen and perceived on the scale it inhabits, which is larger than that of the individual.
What do you see as the biggest issue that has been raised by your work? At the heart of the growth wars is the question “Does the land have inherent value?” That’s why these childhood memories that the various characters in the film share with us are so important and so powerful. From Redford learning to swim to the small town farm life that the developer Gary Bradley knew, these are what we have left of our initial connection to that inherent value of the land.
How would you advise those who are facing development questions to think about them? The approach is everything. Are you looking at the land as something with a history that’s embedded in an ecosystem that extends beyond our area and lifespan, or are you looking at it as a “blank canvas” on which you can draw something that will make a profit? That’s going to make a big difference.
The Unforeseen will screen on Wednesday, July 23, 7:30 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.