*Water, algae, light by Laurie Wajima
Director: Laura Dunn
Cast: Robert Redford, Willie Nelson, Ann Richards, William Greider, Gary Bradley, Wendell Berry
Synopsis: (from SXSW catalog)
A west Texas farm boy heads to Austin in pursuit of the American dream. Skillfully capitalizing on the rapid growth of this late 1970s boomtown, he rises to the top, transforming a 4000-acre ranch into the state's largest and fastest-selling subdivision. As development threatens the local treasure, a fragile limestone aquifer and a naturally spring-fed swimming hole, the community fights back and forms one of America's strongest environmental movements. This is no simple story, but a tale of personal hopes, victories and failures; a series of debates over land, economics, property rights and the public good; a meditation on the destruction of the natural world and the American dream.
Of course, the title is ironic.
It was also ironic for me to see the film almost a year after two propositions to fight globalization failed in a city-wide vote because of "unforeseen consequences," code invented by developer lobbyists to kill environmental measures.
Irony. In a brilliant thread of film woven in and out of the narrative, the politico named Brown, who lobbied to get grandfathering laws passed at the State level to negate local water ordinances, brags while gluing together a model bomber, full of thumbsize rockets, which he glues, tapes up with blue masking tape, paints and blows dry.
Historical clips and the clear, powerful graphics, the documentation of events and forces that have resulted in the near destruction of one of America’s most beautiful springs, the dramatic red-lining of planet earth are to be applauded.
For the most part, The Unforeseen, brilliant as it is, however, is not the film I would like to have seen, or thought to see. The synopsis above is a far cry from the "film about Barton Springs" I understood Laura was making after we met during a long lunch at the beginning of her work on the project. I knew the film had powerful backing and thought it might do important work. It think it will. I thanked her afterwards, in the hallway, when the credits were running. And I meant it.
It was a brave artistic decision to tell the story from the developer point of view, in Austin, anywhere, to cast Gary Bradley — the likes of Ken Lay — as a tragic hero, caught up by forces greater than himself, washed through with tragic irony. Laura said during a Q&A after the showing, she didn't want to demonize him.
During the growth war Laura recaps in the early 90s, I ran into Freeport MacMoran’s front man, David Armbruster, in the grocery store. He was looking for a birthday card. Knowing that didn't make me a more effective environmental activist.
It is a service to trace the lines of globalization from Freeport MacMoran’s obscene strip mining in Indonesia to their fertilizer plants that dump raw poison into the Mississippi River in Louisiana, killing the estuaries that might have saved New Orleans, and then let us see how that devastation has spread to our/anyone’s home town. This cannot be said too often. Throughout, overviews were beautifully done, shot from the windows of airplanes, scenes of devastation spread out in the light, making it obvious that a huge movement for moritorium on all building on the aquifer be demanded by all sane citizens of the region, now.
Too often Americans don’t get it that our brand of global capitalism is the lion that eats itself, and tiring of foreign fodder, will consume our own homeland.
What the film doesn’t do is explain how it is that we allow this.
While she was busy making Gary Bradley, [old crony of Ann Richards, who Molly Ivins once told me --"has always been a liar" -- the developer who eventually sold off to Freeport, aka Stratus, now itself for sale] look like a human being — Austin was turning itself into a perfect case study of how we feed the giant.
We, and by "we" I mean the environmental movement and the people of Austin, let them get away with it. We helped them. They couldn’t have done it without us.
We chose to work for "consensus" with developer nice guys for the good of the whole community, and stopped paying attention while these same nice guys worked behind our backs to pass grandfathering laws. We let old feuds discount brilliantly conceived tools for regulating corporate greed. We fought each other, tossings millions into the frey. We let developers get away with race bating and have been left with a movement divided along lines of culture and race, when water is a human issue, not a white one. We approved "bmps" and "green building standards", "mitigation deals," state of the art watering with "treated" sewage on golf courses, and all kinds of stragegies that made it "feasible" to build-out the aquifer. We embraced Wise Use strategies like the ones Gail Norton brought to the Bush Cabinet. We turned blind eyes when our pals sidled up to special interests. We let them into the movement, and they played us against each other. We let our elected officials at state and local levels off the hook when they said it was too much touble to protect the environment.
David Armbruster, the old Freeport point guy, is now the Director of the Board of the Hill Country Conservancy. Maybe when his term runs out, Gary Bradley can do it. On their watch the Hill Country and Edwards Aquifer will be built-out, and they will get awards for open space strips that make Freeport spin-off properties flip for more money.
While the the film threads mostly from the developer island of reality, it features a narrative by SOS director, Bill Bunch, architect of those recent anti-globalization measures. However, anything he might have said about this most recent growth war doesn’t show up in the film — ironic, in my view, because it was this last set of conflagrations that clarified the problem in my eyes.
I’d never believed complaints about "greenwashing" about "sell out" until I saw the developer master plan fold out in the board rooms of an Austin environmental non-profit group — Bill the attack point of developers and environmentalists both. The point being to me how profoundly corporate hogwash streams throughout our culture. And we don't get it. And attack our own for pointing it out.
I have long thought that one of our most important errors was that we have seen environmentalism as a single point issue, ignoring globalization and the war machine, which is the real foe. This film addresses that. But the choice to play the narrative out of the developer perspective led Laura Dunn to leave out significant details, choose others oddly.
She left out that Bradley drove the city into a "takings" case forcing us to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy out his losses "caused" (odd use of the word) by our water ordinance. She picked Sally Shipman to be the councilmember to announce the defeat of the Barton Creek Pub (which has been completely built-out anyway) when, actually, Shipman tried to de-rail the whole thing right before the vote, then left town to join her developer husband in Houston. She left out scores of important activists, whose wisdom and experience bring light to the struggle to protect the earth — this in favor of the Gary Bradley thread.
I know politicos who are breathing huge sighs of relief because Laura Dunn left them out. While the farmer in Hutto is another iconic (male) character, the farm in Hutto she features isn't on the aquifer. There have been iconic women in the movement — Shudde Fath, Mary Arnold, Margueritte Jones, for instance. Bill Oliver, not Willie Nelson, love his bones, is the Austin musician who heralds Barton Springs and works non-stop for the environment. Robert Redford has been a revered advocate for Barton Springs for decades; we need his voice.
After National Geographic came here, interviewing some of us, and produced a spread on Austin, I wondered whose hometown they were talking about. I felt a little like that watching Laura's film, and was startled to hear my own voice in it, and honored to be included.
The condition of the water in the springs was somewhat sanitized in the film. The bottom of the pool is a wasteland, stringing globs of algae climbing up to the light, choaking underwater plants, filling up the water column with fur that makes swimmers choke and gives us sinus and lung infections.
Ann Richards got way too much credit for protecting the environment, which was not one of her priorities. When I see Gary Bradley weep because his mother died while he was in bankruptcy, and his hometown judged him harshly, I think of what Pam Thompson said in the lobby after the film, "His mother died. And he killed ours."
So I wonder if Irony – the sort that burgeons in classical tragedy – works. Or working, if it says enough about what has happened and why.
An iconic American hero crashes and weeps.
I don’t care about that nearly as much as I mourn the loss of our beautiful pool, or the mothers, fathers, children, human figures who will die when our coastal cities fill up with water unless we motivate people to insist that our government reign in corporations. And that's not going to happen without relentless, informed, public pressure.
Surely The Unforeseen will help people in other places understand this, or will they think it can't happen to them?
Mostly the soundtrack is a dirge. It is a dark vision indeed because, perhaps, it stopped short of the answer to these societal and environmental catastrophes. And it didn’t have to because the answer was being played out while she was at work on the film. We have to come together as Americans, change the political culture, reject wise-use, regulate the corporations on the scale of the anti-trust movement in the middle of the last century. We must admit our mistakes, grave as they have been, and move on. That is what the last growth war in Austin taught me.
I know why she chose to ignore this, I think. It was a messy fight, complicated, lots of raw feelings, lots of people who used to work for the environment, working against it. Artistically impossible.
The Unforeseen shows us how the big boys work. It avoids what makes their victories possible. We help them. We allow it.
So world-scale, The Unforeseen, is a brilliant film about an environmental disaster caused by globalization. For us, the ones who have worked for decades in Austin to combat this horror — the question is where do we go from here? How do we stop feeding the giant?
I'd like to see the film she didn't make.
Ironic, because artistically, the one she made is nearly perfect.
© Susan Bright, 2007
Susan Bright is the author of nineteen books of poetry. She is the editor of Plain View Press which since 1975 has published one-hundred-and-fifty books. Her work as a poet, publisher, activist and educator has taken her all over the United States and abroad. Her most recent book, The Layers of Our Seeing, is a collection of poetry, photographs and essays about peace done in collaboration with photographer Alan Pogue and Middle Eastern journalist, Muna Hamzeh.
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