Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A review of The Unforseen

In the movie The Unforeseen, filmmaker Laura Dunn takes a compelling look at the consequences and conflicts surrounding suburban Austin development. With a tilt against developers, Dunn makes an attempt to provide some underlying critiques of the ideology of sprawl, but falls short of making the connections and critiques that would make the film truly ground breaking.

The movie focuses primarily on the controversy over the Barton Creek development and sympathetically portrays a grassroots coalition nobly defending a community asset. After a narrative of the decades of action around the issue, Dunn presents a critique of the obsession with shortsighted outward growth and at one point journalist William Greider suggests that a more responsible model would be making the most out of the development that already exists. Here, Dunn misses the connection between outward development’s impact on the environment and inward redevelopment’s impact on traditionally marginalized communities. In fact, Greider’s point forms a tacit argument for gentrification, as developers look to maximize use of the “neglected” neighborhoods, regardless of the impact on the politically, economically, and socially marginalized people who inhabit them. The narrative of developers running roughshod over the will of the community is that same instances. But in the case of gentrification, unlike with Barton Creek, there is not a playground of the privileged at stake, so it is unlikely that there will be (and empirically shown that there won’t be) a giant well-funded coalition of liberals standing up for the rights of those displaced by redevelopment.

Undercutting both forms of development but unspoken in the movie is the consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people. This consolidation is painfully apparent in the movie, as it exclusively features white men (plus former Governor Ann Richards). It could be argued that white men just happen to be the major players in the development process, but surely they are not the only stakeholders or people with opinions on the issue. And it never seems to occur to Dunn that maybe white men having all the power in the development battles is part of the problem.

Ultimately, Dunn cuts into the driving forces behind irresponsible development and growth, but stops before getting to the heart, and tacitly (even if unintentionally) argues that one form of development by dispossession be replaced by another.