Austin is known for its movie culture and progressive politics. The former is epitomized by Richard Linklater and the Austin Film Society; the latter is exemplified by the fight over Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer, a battle that’s been raging for a generation now, with the environmentalist Save Our Springs Alliance arrayed on one side and the forces of development on the other. Until recently, environmentalists seemed to have the upper hand, thanks to resolutions and ordinances passed in the early ’90s, but the tides are shifting. Relying on “grandfathered” claims, Advanced Micro Devices, a company that specializes in the production of computer and communications microprocessors, is building an enormous office complex in the Barton Creek Watershed area. This spring, environmentalists and developers went another 12 rounds over the controversial and ultimately unsuccessful Proposition 2—the so-called “Clean Water Amendment.” The SOS-sponsored charter amendment would have severely limited the City of Austin’s ability to allow development in or near the watershed area. On May 13, Proposition 2 was defeated in a popular vote.
Two filmmakers active in the fight for Barton Springs, Dawn Cooper and Susanne Mason, are the curators of the Green Screen film series, an environmental-film showcase taking place this summer at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Downtown. Mason is a freelance documentarian who does production and communication work for SOS; Cooper works as a producer and director for Downtown, a local public television program. The Green Screen series features films about the natural world and people who work in defense of the environment. The films they’ve selected represent both local and national concerns—from Barton Springs to the San Marcos River, from the Grand Canyon to Mississippi River.
The Texas Observer recently sat down with Cooper and Mason to discuss the Green Screen series, the relationship between art and activism, and the ongoing fight for the future of Barton Springs, the local swimming hole many see as the soul of Austin.
Texas Observer: How do you know each other, and how did you come up with the idea for the Green Screen series?
Dawn Cooper: We’ve known each other for years through the film community. I work at a design production company (Action Figure) and they do a lot of image work, so I wanted Susanne to talk to my boss and see if he had any suggestions about how they could get the word out about Save Our Springs.
Susanne Mason: A lot of my work is contracting with local filmmakers for production-support work, and recently I’ve been contracting with Save Our Springs, helping with communications and short documentaries.
DC: The environment is very important to me, and something I can do— something I know how to do—is put on screenings and film series. You can get people to come out to a movie, and it’s fun and it’s free, and then you can get people engaged in the debate. We sat down and were like, “Okay what’s our fantasy, dream film series? We have to make sure that that stuff exists before we do it.” We wanted the films to be really artful, well-done, engaging documentaries about environmental victories that were inspirational.
SM: [laughing] That’s a tall order. When we first started talking about what we could do, we asked, “Why aren’t there more environmental films out there?” We’ve been trying to curate just six screenings, and it’s very difficult to find high-quality films about environmental battles, which shocks me.
DC: We had Roy Bedichek’s Vanishing Frontier, which was a no-brainer because it was about Barton Springs, and the next one, Monumental, about David Brower and the fight for the Grand Canyon, is the perfect example of what we wanted. It’s beautiful and inspiring and emotional. We didn’t want to bum people out. Documentaries are usually about what’s wrong with the world, and they’re not usually very inspirational—they’re depressing. It seems like the climate out there is that people don’t want to be bummed out anymore. If you have a negative message, people will think you’re a radical, left-wing, extremist, militant environmentalist. And environmentalists, unfortunately, don’t make good filmmakers.
SM: It’s not because they’re bad filmmakers, I don’t think. It’s because they’re activists, so half of the time they’re worried about whatever struggle they’re in. And the energy isn’t there to sit around raising money …
TO: The ideology gets in the way of the aesthetics?
DC: It really takes a lot to make a good documentary. You have to have studied it and practiced it and to have evolved as a filmmaker. And environmentalists just don’t spend their time doing that. They spend their time phone-banking or walking around talking to people or protesting.
SM: I consider myself an environmentalist and a documentary filmmaker, but in terms of being a real environmentalist, what I think might be a full-time, die-hard environmentalist, I wish I could say I am, but I can’t. I’m very passionate about it, but I don’t study; I can’t identify plants and trees and flowers. I’m not a naturalist.
DC: But you don’t have to be a botanist and know all these different plants to know it’s important to save them. For me, it’s a no-brainer; I can’t even believe people argue about it.
TO: So you, Dawn, directed an episode about Barton Springs for Downtown, and Susanne, you’re working with SOS. As curators, was this series a direct response to what’s going on with Barton Springs and to the recent Proposition 2 debate? Was it a political act for you to put this series together?
DC: Yes and no. I think we just thought it was unfortunate that environmental issues and issues concerning Barton Springs weren’t on people’s radar. That’s a symptom of a much bigger problem. People should be talking about these issues. It wasn’t that we wanted to have this film festival so that Proposition 2 would pass, because we only have one screening a month, and it’s going to go on for five more months. But I said I’m going to do what I know how to do and what I can do to at least get the environmental movement back up and running.
SM: I hate to say that it’s a political thing because that’s become a word with a bad connotation, but I just feel that people have a lot to gain by reconnecting with the natural world and local issues, and I guess I’m really inspired by that. I find it interesting to talk to people about how they perceive the basic challenge we face as a community and how we have this global environmental crisis—the coral reefs are dying, the glaciers are melting, it’s getting really hot out—and yet we as a community aren’t able to figure out a way to rally our forces and really dedicate ourselves to protecting what a majority of people would agree is the single more important natural asset we have: Barton Springs. I don’t want to see Barton Springs get paved over like some normal pool. I don’t want to see Southern California over the watershed. And that’s what’s gonna happen.
DC: The answer in Austin is more density, which is the mission of the show I work on [Downtown]: to get people to come back downtown, stop moving out to the Hill Country, and stop spreading out all over the place. Less driving, less pollution.
TO: Downtown was created, at least in part, to promote urban density. The Green Screen series was designed to promote environmental awareness. Do you see your role as filmmakers and curators always in social terms? Is social awareness the main goal? Where do you find the balance between social activism and art?
SM: I really, in the last few years, have found myself asking this question a lot because I feel very ambivalent suddenly about what I do, in the sense that I don’t believe there are enough avenues for the kind of programming I like to make and that I think we should be producing. So in order to be effective in the field there are limited ways to do that. And if you don’t somehow manage to be lucky enough or good enough or know the right people to be able to work in those places, then you’re sort of forced into doing—and I don’t mean to sound conceited—mediocre stuff that’s really just a waste of people’s time as far as I’m concerned. And that’s really troubling to me.
DC: I think that that’s one thing that we talked about too, when we first came up with the idea for the film series: I can’t stop the war in Iraq. There are so many things; where do you start? Everything is just so screwed up. Yet, on a local level, they say 14 percent of people vote in local elections. You have so much more opportunity to effect change if you devote your time to local things.
So I’m trying to shrink things down. I’m not going to worry about China becoming the next big superpower. I just can’t do anything about that. Luckily [I was able to do] the Downtown show, which was about Barton Springs, which is really important to me, and which was seen by 20,000 people. I’m not a hotshot filmmaker that’s playing at Sundance or hanging out with movie stars. At one time, I thought that maybe that was what I wanted, but I don’t care about that anymore. It’s not about my image. I’m about accomplishing something. If it’s something small, it’s better than nothing at all.
To make a documentary, you’re looking at five years minimum, from beginning to end, and yeah, it might be the hotshot thing at Sundance, but then people forget about it, and the next year there’ll be another hotshot thing at Sundance. In terms of the social issues that I deal with, I deal with them in the same way as my work as a filmmaker. Producing something locally that costs a lot less money and takes a lot less time that impacts the community you live in has more of a direct impact.
SM: I could have spent 10 years being an activist in the environmental battle that I feel very deeply and strongly about and probably accomplished a lot more than I have as a filmmaker [laughs], but it’s like writing a novel: Once you are invested, it’s very hard to wrench yourself away. For better or worse, it becomes a part of who you are. You can’t just abandon it. It’s a total commitment. And I don’t think people get involved in that sort of creative pursuit for any other reason than some really strong passion.
Josh Rosenblatt is an Austin-based journalist who frequently writes about the arts.