Butterflies and Spiderwebs

In 2002, Laura Dunn was packing her bags for the Middle East. The University of Texas at Austin film graduate student had spent four years making documentaries about social and environmental justice issues in the United States, and was now on her way to the Arabah Desert, on the Israel-Jordan border, to direct a movie about water issues. She had registered in Hebrew and Arabic classes, and landed a Fulbright grant to fund the trip. She was all but on the plane.

Then came a phone call from filmmaker and longtime Austinite Terrence Malick, director of Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Malick was interested in producing a documentary about development and suburban sprawl in Austin, and the detrimental effect they were having on the landscape, particularly on Barton Springs, a natural pool that many see as the city’s “heart.” He had seen Dunn’s thesis film, Become the Sky, and wanted her to direct his movie. Dunn had never met Malick and had no reason to believe he even knew who she was. She was stunned. “I didn’t feel prepared for it,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I had my shit together. I was headed to Israel; I had to rethink everything. Which, of course, I did.”

Four years and 150 hours of footage later, Dunn’s film, The Unforeseen, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in January. The film, which chronicles the seemingly unending battle between Austin developers and environmentalists over the fate of Barton Springs and the surrounding Hill Country, is as much a visual meditation on the natural world as it is a historical documentary. Dunn and cinematographer Lee Daniel (who helped turn Austin into an independent film Mecca back in the early ’90s with his work on Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Dazed and Confused) employ sweeping shots of city skylines and verdant pastures-in addition to hydrological maps, old news footage, and interviews-to compose an elegy for a deteriorating natural world groaning under the weight of romanticized ambition and the seemingly boundless human desire for convenience.

“When Terry [Malick] and I first talked about the movie,” Dunn remembers, “he told me to take Barton Springs, that which God gave us, and look at what we’re doing to it. ‘View the world through a grain of sand,’ he said.” Like her mentor, Dunn is enamored of long, lingering underwater shots and extended golden-hour meditations on prairies and pools. At the same time, she’s fascinated by sewer maps, court testimony, and land-use ordinances. The result of Dunn’s desire to create a documentary that was a “hybrid of art and journalism,” The Unforeseen is equal parts history lesson, minimalist lament, hydrology crash course, and Greek tragedy.

“If I do something that’s cold and has no emotion and no perspective,” she says, “it’s a lie. I was driven to do something that was getting at the truth. Not necessarily art or journalism, or fact or fiction, but the space in between. Interweaving the facts of things and how they happened with a personal interpretation of what it means and how it’s important and how it affects people is my thing. All the shots of butterflies and spiderwebs and kids playing in the springs: They’re my emotional connection to the subject.”

It’s an emotional connection born out of Dunn’s inherited appreciation for the natural world. Her mother is a former botanist who now works as a maize geneticist and plant breeder. Her grandfather once owned the largest pecan farm in the world. As a child, Dunn played in archeological digs in Kentucky and Ohio. “I grew up in cornfields and greenhouses,” she says. “In my family, horticulture and agriculture are in the blood.” Though her aim with The Unforeseen was to explore all sides of the Barton Springs story, she approached the film with an environmentalist’s eye.

“As a documentarian you’re always held to this standard of being objective. But really, there’s no such thing as objectivity. You always have a point of view. So are you going to be honest about that point of view, or are you going to pretend you don’t have one and call yourself the voice of God?”

She says her main concern while making the movie was capturing the melancholy attending the decline of Barton Springs while relaying the reasons behind it. “I consider myself a journalist first and an artist second,” she says. “My instinct as a journalist is to chase a story. Lee [Daniel, the film’s cinematographer] couldn’t understand why I was so interested in all the detail of the trials and the legislation and the protests because he channels reality aesthetically. He sees the aesthetics first; I see the issues first.

“I want to contribute to the discourse. I want people to leave knowing something. I don’t want people to just feel that we’re going to hell; I want people to know how it happened.” Too often, she says, with struggles like the one surrounding Barton Springs, people forget that victories and losses come one by one, subtly and slowly over time, and that nothing is lost or gained in a single swoop.

Laura Dunn

A few weeks after her film’s debut at Sundance, Dunn sat in a coffee shop just north of the UT campus, near the home she shares with her husband, Jef Sewell, and their son Jasper, who turns 2 in May. (Dunn went into labor the day after taping her interview with Robert Redford, who swam in Barton Springs as a child and is one of the film’s executive producers). It was two weeks before The Unforeseen‘s Austin debut at the South by Southwest film festival, and Dunn was worried about the response it would elicit from the city’s environmental community.

She had decided early on in the process to look at the Barton Springs debate through the eyes of Gary Bradley, one of Austin’s most influential developers and perhaps the most loathed man among the city’s environmental activists. The fight over Barton Springs has been going on for 20 years, and Bradley has become, for many, the face of rapacious development.

Bradley-a former West Texas farm boy-long has been at the center of Austin’s debates over private property rights and environmental preservation.

Environmentalists claim that his Circle C Ranch subdivision southwest of town, and his efforts to get the MoPac Expressway extended over the Edwards Aquifer, hastened degradation of Barton Creek and Barton Springs, and opened the door to massive development over and around the springs’ environmentally sensitive recharge and contributing zones. Bradley’s actions cleared the way, they argue, for groups like Stratus Properties Inc.-spun off from Freeport-McMoRan Inc., a corporation famous for its disregard of environmental regulations in the United States and abroad-to develop its own subdivisions alongside Barton Creek, increasing impervious cover and runoff in the region and damaging the water moving from the Edwards Aquifer into Barton Springs. As soon as Dunn met Bradley in his office, she knew she had found her film’s center. “People couldn’t understand why I focused on Gary Bradley,” she says. “But he’s so interesting. I may disagree with him in a lot of respects, but he’s a really compelling person, and as a documentary filmmaker, that’s what you’re looking for.

“When I first met him, I pulled up to his office, which is in a castle overlooking the city. I walked into this huge room with this enormous aerial map of Austin behind him, with all the areas he had developed delineated, and this big, black marble table. It was so dramatic. It was one of those things that stuck in my mind. And I remember thinking at that time, ‘This is the story. If someone’s concerned with environmental issues, this is what’s interesting: How can I see this through a developer’s eyes?'”

Bradley proved remarkably candid as a subject. In the opening scenes of The Unforeseen, as the camera takes in the vast West Texas countryside where Bradley grew up, the developer speaks about a harsh childhood that instilled in him an almost pathological sense of ambition. “Even from an early age,” he says, “I wanted to be someplace else. You can’t win if you’re a farmer; all the odds are stacked against you.” Recalling the thunderstorms that wiped out his family’s crops when he was a boy, Bradley gives us a glimpse into his views on nature as a destructive force that needs to be reined in. “Nature very quickly in your life, as a child, becomes God,” he says, “a God that is of great abundance at times and takes everything away at times. My goal was to get out of there and get into a life I could have more control over.”

Bradley came to Austin in the late 1960s with ambition in his heart and dollar signs in his eyes. He looked out on the city’s generous green space and water (both shocking to a young man from the West Texas dust bowl), and saw this natural world as a “blank canvas” upon which he would paint his masterpiece, with buildings and roads and sewer lines as his tools. For Bradley, development is an art, a sense, and a skill to be cultivated, much like painting, music, and theater.

“Gary’s a really complex person, very emotional and very dramatic,” says Dunn. “And I wanted to get behind his eyes. His life is drawn so intensely. He’s the ultimate American character. And it’s a big American question he’s raising, historically, and it’s more pressing now than it’s ever been: Is a piece of land a ‘blank canvas’ on which to build? Or does it have value inherent to itself? Should it be left alone or cared for? Should we not build on it at all, or should we build in a way that is respectful? It was really important for me to find out how he sees the land and to understand all these different ways of seeing the natural world.”

Some in the environmental community disagree with Dunn’s humanizing portrait of Bradley. For them, he is a con man at best, a sinister agent at worst. The suggestion that Bradley’s developments are the work of an artist prompts laughter from Tim Jones, a longtime water activist, freelance field investigator, and former member of Austin’s environmental board: “To think the planet is nothing more than what you see on a map-just a ‘blank canvas’-is so out of touch with reality, it’s criminal.” Former Austin City Councilwoman and Save Our Springs Alliance co-founder Brigid Shea calls Bradley an “evil genius” and a “puppet master.” She criticizes Dunn’s film for going easy on a man whose political and legislative manipulations helped clear the way for the deterioration of Barton Springs.

Others see Dunn’s film bringing much-needed perspective to an insular movement that has allowed its entrenched opinions and methods to get in the way of its goals. “I think there are a lot of people in Austin who don’t want to see the heart or humanity of Gary Bradley, and want him only to exist as a caricature or only want the shadow side of him,” says Robin Rather, the CEO of consulting firm Collective Strength and a former chair of the SOS Alliance. “There were a lot of people in the environmental community that were surprised that Laura didn’t demonize Bradley. Because he has been routinely demonized; that is the caricature of him. But she went to the other side of the spectrum, and that’s part of what gave the film its humanity.

“If Laura was easy on Bradley,” Rather adds, “she was even easier on the Austin environmental community because she largely let us off the hook. Here’s one of the greenest, most politically active communities in the country. The fight over Barton Springs has gone on for more than two decades. We passed one of the toughest impervious-cover laws ever. SOS won multiple cases before the Texas Supreme Court. And we still haven’t won it. In fact, I think we still have a lot to answer for, for the shape it’s in.

“What Laura’s movie does,” Rather says, “is show what has happened to Barton Springs despite all the best intentions of the Austin environmental community.”

Bradley’s story would probably make for an epic narrative movie in its own right, a sort of Southwestern Citizen Kane, chronicling the rapid rise and precipitous fall of a man blind to the wages of his own sins. Or a modern capitalist Greek tragedy, following the destruction that befalls a community because of one man’s hubris. Even now, after his humbling bankruptcy declaration in 2002 and the resulting accusations of fraud and conspiracy, with his empire essentially in ruins and his legal and business future uncertain, Bradley’s legacy in Austin, like the West Texas prairies he comes from, is still one of size and scope and ambition.

“Bradley is a quintessential American character,” says Dunn. “When you’re young and you have you big, bold ambitions and you’re full of life, you have all these ideas of the way things are supposed to go. And then it doesn’t work out that way. And that’s so painful. And I think in a way America is headed in that direction. He’s a symbol of the American dream and how false it is in many respects.

“That’s what I think Gary is really representing, up there alone in his castle. It’s a broken dream.”

Josh Rosenblatt is a freelance writer in Austin.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.

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Published at 12:00 am CST