Laura Dunn's film about the dangers of overdevelopment, and the effects it can have on the environment, is the type of documentary that manages to knock the wind out of you as you watch it. This is because she manages to hit the nail on the head of the "how can you not see this?" correlation between cause and effect. Dunn interviews key people involved in the political overdevelopment in Austin, Texas that was bitterly fought between developers like Gary Bradley and environmentalists in the Save our Springs alliance. While people talking about the dangers of overdevelopment are not new, Austin serves as a perfect window into the debate, because of Barton Springs, a natural spring-fed pool near downtown Austin that has served as a public swimming hole and park since the early 1900s. The springs are practically a beaker full of evidence that you can point to and say, "Look, this is what is happening as a result of what's going on." Underwater footage shot in 1996 shows how crystal clear the water once was, before development started. Footage shot today shows how milky-white the water is now, and how the visibility has shrunk to only a few feet. The springs also held an abundance of fish, which are now almost gone entirely. It's a tragic image that hammers home Dunn's point.
Dunn's interviews with Bradley are especially insightful. He's a sort of tragic figure that you develop an odd sympathy for, and he sheds the only tears in the film -- although that's more because of his fall from grace and subsequent financial problems. Dunn also interviews the man behind House Bill 1704, which was the bill that would allow this over-development to take place along the Barton Springs watershed, despite it's being voted down on an Austin city ballot. One of the film's more powerful and understated scenes involve him being interviewed while literally assembling bombs for a model airplane that he is building.
Ann Richards, the late Democratic governor of Texas who vetoed 1704 in a different form (as House Bill 1029) in 1993, is also interviewed, and she provides a poignant insight into the problem, crystallizing how it became a partisan issue. After she was defeated by George W. Bush, he promptly signed the bill into law, which kick-started the development into high speed, and has left Austin with a growing problem with both the springs, and the Edwards Aquifer, the underground water table that feeds the Austin area.
This film was especially powerful for me, since I went to college in Austin and travel back to see friends and family there every year. I remember how charged the Save Our Springs organization was during my time there, and how they had achieved such a victory in voting down the development when it seemed imminent. The fact that all of this effort and hard work was overturned by a bill that in effect "grandfathers" existing development in, regardless of new laws and regulations, was a blow not only to them, but to the city as well.
Robert Redford, who spent time growing up in Austin and swimming at Barton Springs, has become an opponent in the fight against the over-development of precious areas like Barton Springs. Both the message and the struggle are applicable all over the world, and as the population continues to grow, and we start to develop every square inch on the planet, it is an issue that will only get more attention in the coming years.