BEFORE Hollywood went green, there was Robert Redford.
Before Arianna Huffington could have imagined a Prius, before Laurie David recycled, when the words "Al Gore" and "Oscar" in the same sentence would have seemed . . . well, outlandish, there was Redford, who made a cause of the natural world back when environmentalism was still called "ecology," decades before "green" was anything but a color.
Now, as an executive producer of a new film, "The Unforeseen," the leading man turned director turned Sundance Film Festival impresario has combined his longtime environmental advocacy with an ongoing passion: documentary cinema.
The result is something that really is unforeseen: The film is a poetic tocsin about the dangers of urban sprawl. Directed by Laura Dunn and shot by cinematographer Lee Daniel (best known for his work with Richard Linklater), "The Unforeseen" is a kind of visual prose poem that involves a naive real estate developer and a legendary Texas Hill Country swimming hole that figured in Redford's real-life youth. It's a look, Redford said in an interview this week, at how manifest destiny has pushed the country beyond the pioneering spirit and into unbridled development, with serious consequences.
At a time when many documentarians are taking on serious subjects abroad, such as the war in Iraq, Redford believes that "The Unforeseen" serves as a reminder that preventing global disasters often starts with attending to business in your own backyard.
"We are faced with the reality that our resources are shrinking," said Redford, who co-produced the film with Oscar-nominated writer-director Terrence Malick.
"The Unforeseen," which opens today in Los Angeles and also will air on Redford's Sundance Channel in August, centers on the long-running environmental fight to save Barton Springs, in rapidly expanding Austin, Texas, from becoming yet another urban casualty.
"I'm invested in this in a very personal way," Redford said. "My mother's side of the family has lived in that area for five generations. It's where I learned about animals and wildlife. It's where I learned to swim."
Dunn, an Austin native who is making her feature-length directorial debut, moves the story forward by using archival footage of community debates, gorgeous photography of the springs and its ecosystem, and interviews with key players involved in the battle (the developer Gary Bradley, the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards and Redford.)
"There's lots of information to try to help people better understand how our national landscapes are transformed and lost," Dunn said of the movie. "But I wanted to look at the issues also from an emotional and spiritual standpoint, and get people to reflect on that."
You can get something of the flavor of the film from the poem "Santa Clara Valley," which Dunn runs throughout the movie like a narrative conscience.
The poet is Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer who was writing about these issues before there was an Earth Day.
He reads in voice-over: "I walked the deserted prospect of the modern mind where nothing lived or happened that had not been foreseen.
"What had been foreseen was the coming of the Stranger with Money.
"All that had been before had been destroyed . . ."
Dunn's use of the poem has been a controversial one, however. Since the film premiered at various film festivals last year, some critics have complained that it's too flowery and sentimental. Both Dunn and Redford defend the technique: You can't solve the problem unless people are moved and inspired.
In a way, it's what Redford envisions as the key component in future documentaries. "Once you start to introduce emotion into it and the beauty of art, then it starts to move into a new territory," Redford said.
This unity of art and information, he believes, can help create larger audiences for documentaries at a time when younger viewers in particular are open to information from new and unfamiliar sources.
Redford is so committed to the idea that he's now backing two Sundance Cinema Theaters, one in San Francisco and another in Wisconsin, to give documentaries equal play with other features.
It would be the most unforeseen thing of all if the fight to save a Texas swimming hole helped remind activist Hollywood that its voice is strongest when it speaks the language of film.