One highlight of documentary filmmaker Laura Dunn’s work on "The Unforeseen" was the opportunity to interview Robert Redford, who used to spend summers in Austin, Texas, and learned to swim at Austin’s Barton Springs water hole, which was threatened by development upstream. The film’s producer, Oscar-nominated director Terrence Malick, who directed "The Thin Red Line," "Badlands," and "Days of Heaven." wanted to involve Redford to help raise money and draw visibility to the film. (Filmmaker Dunn earned an MFA in film production in 2002 from the University of Texas at Austin.)
When Dunn called to make an appointment with Redford, she was told, "Bob’s coming to Austin on May 8." The only problem was – that was her due date for her son, Jasper, and you don’t tell Robert Redford that the date is iffy. Luckily she didn’t go into labor until May 9.
Dunn had an hour-long conversation with Redford. "I was nervous but immediately felt at ease because he was really substantive. His footage is eloquent, locating the Austin story in a much bigger story – Barton Springs as a microcosm of what is going on elsewhere."
"The Unforeseen," will be screened on Saturday, January 5, at 4 p.m., as part of the 2008 Princeton Environmental Film Festival, which runs from Wednesday through Sunday, January 2 to 6, at the Princeton Public Library. The screening will be followed by a discussion led by Linda J. Mead, executive director of the D&R Greenway Land Trust.
Dunn’s Southern roots are deep. After graduating from Yale in 1997 with a degree in American studies and a concentration in documentary film, she moved to Austin, Texas, for graduate work in film. A native of New Orleans who attended high school in Durham, North Carolina, Dunn says she is simply more comfortable in the South. "I’m culturally more at home, and the spirit of the place is warmer to me than the Northeast," she says in a phone interview from Austin.
While she was at Yale, Dunn says she was disappointed with the disconnect between what was espoused in her classes and the way the university treated the community around it. "In classes it was always ideals about enlightenment, citizenship, leadership, that the ambassadors of the world were coming out of places like Yale," she says. "Meanwhile the community around the university was dealing with the highest poverty rates in the country."
Although Dunn had been drawn to Yale for its drama program, life had something else in mind. When her fellow workers at the student dining hall went out on strike for higher wages, Dunn grabbed a friend with a camera, and they started filming union activity and interviewing participants. The university was arguing that its wages were determined by market forces, but Dunn looked at things differently. "I would argue that the market was interfering with basic morality," she says.
The film that resulted, "The Subtext of a Yale Education," became her first-semester project in graduate school, and when she finished it in 1999, says Dunn, "I was hooked." The film surprised her by winning best documentary at the 1999 National Student Film Festival.
Dunn became interested in environmental issues while she was still in graduate school. Her first subject came from a Wall Street Journal article about poor black and white women in Convent, Louisiana, who successfully defeated the corporation that wanted to locate the world’s second largest polyvinyl chloride (pvc) plant in their community. Dunn had thought the film would be short and quick, but once she started interviewing the women, she says, "I was hooked once again."
The 100 hours of footage she accumulated over a couple of years of regular visits became a film titled "Green," about the most polluted stretch in America – 100 miles with 150 petrochemical plants – dubbed Cancer Alley because of astronomical cancer rates in the area.
The subject of the film, says Dunn, is what environmentalists call environmental justice or, more severely, environmental racism. Dunn explains this terminology: "(The environmentalists’) perception is that polluting industries, if you look at the statistics, are clustered around poor communities and disproportionally around communities of color."
Environmentalists feel that these choices are intentional, as corporations locate plants in poor communities of color, whose residents have few resources because of endemic patterns of racism. Dunn quotes Bob Bullard of Clark University, a leader on environmental justice, who says, "We’re all on a sinking ship, it’s just that the poor and the communities of color are closest to the hole."
When "Green" won a student academy award, it catapulted her both into a film-making career and into the environmental niche.
About five years ago, Dunn was considering a film on the ecological foundations of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in particular the water issues, but she had put it off due to growing violence in the Mideast. In the meantime she met Terrence Malick, who moved her a giant step forward in her filmmaking career. Malick, who had lived in Austin for 40-something years, felt that Austin was at a crossroads where growth and development were threatening the health of the city’s watershed, and he wanted a film to be made about development in Austin. After viewing Dunn’s work, he suggested that she create the documentary he was envisioning. "I dropped everything to work on the project," says Dunn.
Malick, who co-produced "The Unforeseen" with Redford, turned out to be Dunn’s artistic muse as she created the film. "He’s a master at the craft of filmmaking," says Dunn. "He was constantly pushing me to reach beyond the literal reality, to get deeper, to look at the metaphors and the poetics of everything."
He pressed her to reach beyond the physical reality where she was comfortable as a journalist and get at the larger metaphysical questions. When she started to edit the 150 hours of footage she had accumulated, he advised her: "Don’t try to map out the chronological story. Start picking the scenes you like the most and develop those things. Edit it more like a piece of music, with major and minor themes, subplots that begin and don’t go anywhere. It’s not like a treatise about what’s going on."
She had recorded a poem by Wendell Berry, for example, that she wanted to incorporate in the film, but during the editing process was ready to let it go. Malick wouldn’t have it. "No, you have to have the poem," he told her. "It’s like a soundboard for the rest of the film – this oblique angle that the rest of the film bounces off of."
Then there was the old Texas farmer whose farm was being crowded out by subdivisions. "I built scenes around him, because I thought he was a very compelling character, a visual symbol of the old and new," says Dunn.
The film follows two narrative courses. The first is the life trajectory of developer Gary Bradley who, in the course of her interviews with him, went from being on top of a huge development through bankruptcy and a federal trial, eventually losing the castle where his business was housed and where much of the filming took place. At the end he is older and wiser, shedding tears on film as he talks about burying his mother, who had such high hopes for him, while he was in bankruptcy court.
The film also tells the sequential story of Austin’s growth and its environmental fallout as it threatens a local treasure, a fragile limestone aquifer and a naturally spring-fed community swimming hole.
As to how Dunn accumulated all those hours of footage, she calls her research a bit unconventional. After a month batting around the concept with Malick, she called a friend who had been active for years in the environmental movement. She invited him out for a beer and left with a list of 20 people that included a rancher in the hill country, an environmental lawyer, and developers and their lawyers. Slowly she developed a big tree of names, and says she talked to about 400 people before did a single interview on film. Meanwhile, she had a film graduate student culling through television archives, which she uses liberally in the film.
As Dunn settled down to serious interviewing, she worried at first that it would be hard to gain the trust of developers, but soon realized that most people want to tell their story when met with honest interest. By trying to understand how they see the world, says Dunn, "you can get closer to truth and can discover things rather than finding all the evidence in the world to reconfirm the way you see things. That’s why love I films – I learn a lot and expand my own perspective."
When she first met Gary Bradley, the Austin developer who became the focus of the film, she realized he was an incredibly cinematic person, sitting there in his castle looking over the city, with an aerial map of Austin behind him on the wall. "This guy was very interesting, living life in big way – kind of a classic character," says Dunn. "As I got further into talking to him, I realized it would be important and new to the environmental discussion to tell the story through a developer’s eyes."
Even as she has come to understand the complexities of development, Dunn still comes down strongly on the side of sustainable growth. Rhetoric like "If we don’t grow as a city, we will die" or "People will come anyway and we have to deal with that" usually comes from people who will benefit financially from growth, she says, like developers, lawyers, and recruiters.
The underbelly of development reveals its negative effects – traffic, pollution, and overcrowding, to name a few – when a city like Austin exceeds a natural rate of growth. Right now, Dunn says, there are towering condos in downtown Austin that have been built speculatively. "The developers borrow the money, which taxpayers have to pay for when the loan collapses," she says.
In fact, as the new people who have been aggressively recruited by the chamber of commerce arrive, they come with plenty of money and have been buying up houses in central Austin. "This means that middle-class people who have lived in Austin for generations can’t afford to live in the city," says Dunn.
Dunn’s husband, Jef Sewell, is an entrepreneur and artist who did all the film’s motion graphics. He is co-founder of Despair, Inc., which satirizes motivational posters and calendars, and co-founder of Amplifier, Inc., which does e-commerce and fulfillment for Internet content creators.
The two met in Austin. Sewell wanted to use Dunn’s film "Green" as a guinea pig for his new Amplifier firm, and he helped her launch her website and make the DVD. Then they started dating.
Dunn’s mother is a maize geneticist in Durham. She does plant breeding, searching for hearty organic lines of corn. Dunn says she is anti chemicals and pro small farming. Dunn is actually looking toward sustainable agriculture for her next project. She has just started reading "New Roots of Agriculture," by Wes Jackson, and "The Unsettling of America," by Wendell Barry.
Her father, who lives in Michigan, was a heart surgeon but now works on healthcare policy for the Veterans Administration.
Dunn’s life has of course changed, now that she has two-year-old Jasper. He has traveled around the film festival circuit with her, but everything takes a little bit longer now and she has to put in a lot of late nights. Being sleep deprived has made things challenging, she says, but having a child has made her much deeper in her world views.
"The Unforeseen" was just nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, given to films with budgets under $20 million in a ceremony the day before the Oscars. It has also been nominated for a Truer than Fiction Award, which is given to a director for a specific film. "The Unforeseen" will be screened on February 16 at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight, a retrospective of nonfiction films of the previous year, and Dunn will be there. The film is scheduled to open in New York theaters on February 29.
Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Wednesday through Sunday, January 2 to 6, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Visit www.princetonlibrary.org for complete schedule of films and speakers. 609-924-8822.
Top Of PageBehind the Scenes
The Princeton Environmental Film Festival is the work of Susan Conlon, teen services librarian at Princeton Public Library, and a dedicated committee of volunteers. Conlon gathers ideas for movies mostly from other festivals but this year pulled in a half-dozen submissions with a note on the library website, three of which will be part of the festival.
The festival’s theme is "food, water, shelter." "It sounds simple, but when you really start to think about it, these basics are interconnected to each other – how we use resources has an impact on our environment, and they all have relationships to our dependence on energy," says Conlon.
Last year’s festival drew 1,000 attendees over the five days, with some screenings at capacity at 160. By setting the festival in early January, when little else is going on and lots of college students are still at home, the numbers may be even higher this year.
Although most of the films are or will be in the library’s collection, Conlon urges people not to miss the opportunity to see them on a big screen and to hear either the filmmaker or an expert talk about the film.
Conlon says the festival committee made an effort to find recent films that people may have read about in a review or seen in a festival list but have not had an opportunity to see. Some are not easy to find because they have not been released on DVD. The film "Quark Park," which tells the story of Princeton’s bohemian garden artist Peter Soderman, and self confessed "cold hearted realist" Yale architect Kevin Wilkes, who built a marriage of science and architecture on a lot slated for condominiums in Palmer Sqauare, will have its premier screening at the festival.
Having a festival in Princeton also provides a venue for regional films about Trenton, Princeton, and Newark. "There’s a local sensibility," says Conlon, "a way to showcase what people are doing here in Princeton and in New Jersey." But the festival also reaches far and wide. One film, "The Water Front," is about rural and urban Michigan, and another, "Manufactured Landscapes," puts into perspective the effects of globalization and wide-scale changes in the industrialization of China.
The festival also gives screen time to new filmmakers. "Three of the films on the last day, by young filmmakers, have fresh, fun energy, and a lot of humor," says Conlon.
Conlon also believes that Princeton’s festival will influence other libraries to offer their own. "We know this will give a next run to some of the films," says Conlon. "It’s a nice recycling effort."
In the face of global warming and overpopulation, watching environmental films can be serious business. But Conlon feels these films also give people a sense that change is possible. "Most of the films, even those that reveal troubling aspects, are hopeful, and at the conclusion, you feel there is something you can do, some change you can make."