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Week of 6.15.07

Transcript: The Unforeseen

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. It's the documentary equivalent of running a three-minute mile: filmmaker Laura Dunn has achieved the impossible. She's taken on a critically important but mind numbing issue and made it fascinating, poetic, heartbreaking. It's called "The Unforeseen," a deep examination of a place where suburban sprawl and the environment collide. At one level, it's about citizens rising up to save a beloved piece of the natural world only to be slapped down by forces allied with George W. Bush. But the film is no polemic; it humanizes players on many sides of this development vs. the environment clash and it prompts unsettling questions for all of us, even if we never have occasion to swim in the springs at the heart of Dunn's documentary.

The film begins with a poem by environmentalist Wendell Berry.

WENDELL BERRY: I walked the deserted prospect of the modern mind where nothing lived or happened that had not been foreseen. What had been foreseen was the coming of the stranger with money. All that had been before had been destroyed. A new earth had appeared in place of the old made entirely according to plan.

BRANCACCIO: You knew you were gonna include part of that poem early on in the making of this film. Why?

DUNN: I did know. I read that poem—maybe a few months into working on this film. And it just really struck me. The first few lines of it are "I walked the deserted prospect of the modern mind where nothing lived or happened that had not been foreseen." And he paints this picture of a deserted landscape where there's nothing natural, it's all manmade.

And it's often how I feel walking through my day.

BRANCACCIO: You've chosen to make a film here that is not black and white. And I'm not talking about the color film stock. It's a film about our interactions with the natural world where you've gone out of your way not to paint your characters either as clearly hero or clearly villain. Why?

DUNN: Well, I think the current trend in documentary—is all about polarizing and—advancing one political agenda while denigrating the other half of the population. And I think the environment and our natural resources and our natural landscape is an issue that should—should transcend those—those dichotomies, those false dichotomies. And so, you know, I wanted to make a story that reflected the true complexities of the issue and got at the subject in a way that might shed new light on an issue that we all know about but that doesn't seem to really be getting any better.

BRANCACCIO: And part of that complexity is in the middle of this environmental documentary humanizing one of the main characters who is, egads, a real estate developer, a big time real estate developer in the Texas capital of Austin.

BRADLEY: If you haven't seen a west Texas thunderstorm, it's inspiring. Unless your crops are at risk. Cause usually the tornados and dust are out in front of it, and here comes the hail and the rain. I remember putting the pillows over my ears to not hear the hail cause you just want it to go away. I remember one morning - we'd already been hailed out two years in a row so we were in bad shape with the bank - and when the sun came up there was nothing left in the field ... nothing.

DUNN: He talks about growing up in west Texas, where you're very subject to nature. The hailstorms, the strength of nature's present in your life. He was a farmer, he was dependent on it. And so he says early on, he sets up the whole frame for the film in my opinion, by saying—"Nature becomes God. A God who gives great abundance of time and takes everything away."

BRADLEY: My goal was to get out of there and to get into a life I could, I had more control over.

DUNN: I remember when I first met Gary Bradley and he had this magnificent map, this aerial satellite view of Austin behind him on the wall—thinking about these different ways one sees the land and wanting to get behind his eyes and see the land the way he sees it because it's vastly different than the way I see it.

BRADLEY: Roads kind of the basic blueprint. Once you have that understanding then you can put another layer on your canvas, of water and sewer lines. And now, it's starting to take shape. What I've said on more than one occasion is that as a developer, when I'm at my best, all I need is water. I can't make water. That's something that's gotta be there. It's a God thing, it's life blood.

DUNN: He was going to transform what he saw as a blank canvas into—you know, a grand subdivision and master planned community. Some people see the land as a blank canvas on which to build profit. And other people—may see the land as something that has inherent value and that, in fact, in its pristine state it's sending a message to us and it's communicating information.

BRANCACCIO: You have the legendary singer Willie Nelson right about this part in the film where you're also talking to Gary Bradley, the developer, talking about—well, he compares Austin with Maui, in Hawaii, as this beautiful place years ago, something that he wanted to preserve. But that's not the way the developers see it.

DUNN: Well, I mean, I think that they see the paradise of Austin as actually an opportunity for development in the sense that this is a place where we can lure people and where we can build—community, in a sense or build homes, build buildings create profit, to capitalize on the natural paradise that it is.

BRANCACCIO: They wanna do this real estate development very controversially, right near the place that I gotta say is really the main character of your film. It's not a person but it's a living breathing ecosystem. It's called Barton Springs in Austin. What is the significance of those springs?

DUNN: The significance of Barton Springs is probably hard to put into words if you haven't been there. And what I can tell you of the geological feature, it is a naturally spring-fed swimming hole in the middle of Austin, Texas. So it's this beautiful natural feature right in the center of an urban—landscape.

Part of the reason why Austin was founded where it was founded when it was founded—is because of the water. You know, Texas is a dry place. And so where there is fresh pure—pure clean water is where people go.

BRANCACCIO: So in 1990 this reaches a head in Austin. And people rebel against this real estate development that's even called Barton Springs. And there is this marathon city council meeting. What happens?

DUNN: It all of a sudden catalyzed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who love Barton Springs and love Austin came down to city council.

BRANCACCIO: People from all walks of life stood up to testify in support of the springs.

ASSORTED TESTIMONIES: "I'm a nurse." "I'm a PhD in chemistry." "I'm a health care professional," etc.

ENVIRONMENTALIST WOMAN: "We did change, I'm mean, we had done vote counting before the hearing, and this thing was going to pass."


BRANCACCIO: But that is not the end of the story, is it?

DUNN: No, it's not. Subsequently—it's speculation but Karl Rove was—was working for the George Bush campaign at the time, who was running for governor. And during Ann Richards' reelection campaign, all of a sudden property rights became a big issue on the agenda. And there was the mobilization of a lot of ranchers and farmers across rural Texas.

What happened in my humble opinion is that those values that I think are not bad values—the maverick Texas spirit who wants to have stewardship and care over his own land, the rancher who wants to do it his way and doesn't want the federal government coming in and telling him how to live his life, I respect that.

At the same time, that—I believe that that was misappropriated by developers and moneyed interests in the name of private property rights, which really in the end ended up being in the name of development of those same ranches and farms.

The rancher in this film, Henry Brooks, who has 1,900 acres—over the Barton Creek watershed, is one of those people who marched down Congress in support of private property rights. But what's happening in the name of private property rights, without the environment regulations, the developers are able to come into those areas, buy up the ranches, turn them into subdivisions.

And so even through Henry may be holding out and still ranching, the, when he dies, they will come in. They will reappraise his property. Because of all the division—subdivisions around him now, it will be at a much higher value. So his son most likely won't afford to be able to pay the taxes. The ranch won't be able to stay in the family. And most likely, they'll have to sell pieces off and it will, there's a domino effect where the ranches become subdivisions.

CLIP:"Bush swept into office with what appears to be one of the biggest margins in years ... "

BRANCACCIO: George W. Bush becomes governor of Texas. Ann Richards is out, due in part, in part, to this swelling up of protest about private property rights. And one of the first things he does in office is what?

DUNN: He signs the Take Back Texas bill which essentially allowed the developers—to trump the local ordinance to say that as—as we have state private property rights that, in a sense, grandfather in those developers to be able to develop the land as they would have before the ordinance ever passed. So it allowed the development of over 10,000 acres over the most sensitive area of the watershed.

BRANCACCIO: In the expanding Texas town of Hutto, it's about 30 miles or so from downtown Austin, a lot of these houses have been now built out. And in your film, you get to know a nice couple who's moved in to one of these tract houses.

MRS. PEREZ: Once I saw this small town I drove around and it really reminded me of home I was like, "ok this is where I want to be, this is where I want to raise a family."

MR. PEREZ:Yeah I mean, I think the fact that people can move here and get more house for less money, I think it has a great appeal.

BRANCACCIO: But in a sense, they're part of the problem of suburban sprawl and our impacts on the environment. Yet, you really give them a fair shake in the film, once again.

DUNN: Well, you know I had this question—at my world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. And I was very, very nervous.

BRANCACCIO: Someone asked you this?

DUNN: I think one of my very first questions was quite aggressive and hostile from someone. And, and she said to me, "You know, you were so gentle with them. Why be so easy on them?" Speaking of the Perezes that you mentioned. "They're the problem." And you know, it struck me at that moment and it, and it stayed with me that, you know, I'm part of the problem too.

BRANCACCIO: We're the problem, you're saying?

DUNN: Well, you know the thing is, in central Austin, because of all the new density and green development going on. It, it's pushing property values up. And I can afford to live in a central Austin bungalow. But, you know, some people can't. And just because I can afford to live there doesn't mean I'm better than someone who wants a little bit of space and a safe place for their kids to run around and good schools.

And, and I think a lot of the people who are moving into these suburban sprawl areas that we—you know, the enlightened ones criticize are good people wanting the right things for their families. And it's more of a systemic issue than it is individuals who are the problem, in my opinion. So, you know, who am I to sit in judgment against the Perezes? I don't do that. And I refuse to do that in the film.

BRANCACCIO: And then also in the town of Hutto, this bit of wisdom from the mouths of babes.

TREY KLEPPE: I'm just hoping that it doesn't fill up too quick, cause, if it fills up too quick we'll only be here about maybe two years, and we'll have it for about a year before they start building. And two years later they're full up, can't play anymore, gotta play down in the streets, cars are just wooshing on by. It limits it, cause, out here it's just green and quiet. More room for us to play.

DUNN: Leave it to kid to sort of cut through all the rhetoric and sum up the entire issue, not only in the film but the larger human dilemma, in three sentences. I think that that is it. You know, we moved to somewhere because we, we wanna be there. And, and because there is nature and there is space. And, but by moving there—we are then taking that away. So there is an irony and contradiction there that we're all a part of. And I think Trey sums it up much better than I could.

BRANCACCIO: And did you feel an urgency to finish this film, now, to get people talking about some of these issues?

DUNN: Sure. Yeah, I mean—five blocks from my house there's a huge new development that's going up. They—there's an urgency in the sense that—the lower Colorado River Authority is rapidly paving new roads and setting new waterlines throughout the western part of Travis County into the hill country. And springs are getting more polluted and pools even further out into the hill country now are getting more polluted. And I have a two-year-old son who loves to be outside. So certainly on a daily basis, you feel this compression and there is an urgency.

BRANCACCIO: Well, even Barton Springs itself. Take a look at it in 1996.

And then a few years later, in 2004. Even the springs. It's changing before your eyes.

DUNN: Yeah, the springs are just a reflecting pool for what's happening. Not only in Austin, but all over this country. And, and that's why we chose to make a film—about the springs. To get people to reflect on those issues. But Austin's still a great place. You can still swim in Barton Springs if there hasn't been a lot of rain. There's still something at stake. There's a lot of landscapes where it's already gone.

BRANCACCIO: And if you go even deeper, you have the private property rights people talking about things like if you do something that erodes the value of my land, who will compensate me for that? But it's all a question of what kind of accounting you do. There's an argument in your film about a more holistic approach to accounting that might take into account what?

DUNN: Well, something other than—a short term quarterly return—on the price of sale of your land. You know, that there's more value in—in one's metrics than just that. Unfortunately, I think in our traditional—our—our modern day view of capitalism and growth there's a very short term view of things.

It isn't looking at land as having inherent value. How do you measure the worth of the springs? I think it's a good question. Can you put an economic—you know, measurement on that? Can you say what is the spring going at current market value? Or is there something else? Does the land itself have a value that's beyond our, you know, moneyed ways of understanding things?

BRANCACCIO: And we started off with the story of developer Gary Bradley. He's now in the dumps. Allegations of fraud, allegations of greed. Video of his castle completely ransacked.

BRADLEY: When I left the little town I grew up in, I left on a mission. I was going to come back to that town and ... and be successful. And, I got that opportunity. And my mother took a great deal of pride in ... in my success. They put my mother in the ground, while I was in bankruptcy, in front of what I consider to be ... I'm sorry ... my real peers in that little town. That was incredibly hard.

BRANCACCIO: He talks about in earlier years, he would've talked about things of this earth, material things, I presume. Now he's talking about his relationship with a higher power. Does he get religion about the environment? What's your sense about exactly what he's talking about there, at the end?

DUNN: Certainly by the end of film—that same power he's talking about has stripped him of everything that he saw himself to be. And it's a painful story. And—I think when any of us struggle and are faced with our own failures and the limits to our own ideals, and our dreams—that that forces a deeper reflection. And hopefully, a—a kind of growth, spiritually, that, you know, I, I would certainly aim for in my life.

BRANCACCIO: But including, you think, in, in this developer's case, including a renewed respect for nature?

DUNN: I think, you know, the jury's out, so to speak. It's not for me to judge either way. I feel for Gary, and I appreciate his, himself, you know, that he rendered himself so vulnerably on camera. Because I think that it helps get at what we talked about at the very beginning of this interview, that higher plane. To transcend these polarities and all the politics, and try to strike this issue of the environment from a place of, of one's own spiritual growth and coming to see things differently. And tha—I think for Gary, he's very reflective on his life, his life choices, and, and what's next. And, and so he represents a kind of growth that, that we all need to, in my opinion—look to.

BRADLEY: And what does the future hold for me and my family? Obviously that's a question that's on my mind, constantly.

DUNN: There hasn't really been—a, a big film, or a lot of discussion, in my opinion, in the major media outlets, about real estate development and the, the sprawl in our, in our landscape. Tha—I think that we've talked a lot about global warming, and that's great, but I think, in a way, development's sort of insidious. All of this, you know, consumption of our natural landscape is something we all have to live within. And we don't think about it. It's not a real clear, black and white picture about injustice and corruption and, and, and urgency in that sense. It's something that is all around us, and that we're somewhat callous to. And so to try to make a film that holds a mirror to that, it's like, is this really where we wanna go? Is this really what we wanna leave future generations? That's the intention of the film.

WENDELL BERRY: I walked alone in that desert of unremitting purpose, feeling the despair of one who could no longer remember, another valley, where all the land had not yet been consumed by intention, or the people by their understanding. Where still there was forgiveness in time, so that whatever had been destroyed might yet return. Around me as I walked were dogs barking in resentment against the coming of the unforeseen.

BRANCACCIO: Laura Dunn's film, The Unforeseen, will be shown at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York later this month.

If you'd like to watch more excerpts from "The Unforeseen" on our website. is the place to start.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.