This weekend, the documentary The Unforeseen will begin trickling into theaters. On the surface, it’s about urban sprawl in Austin, Texas. It traces the history of the booming growth of that city, and the tensions that arose between developers and environmentalists trying to protect a natural spring-fed watering hole called Barton Springs. As a piece of strong social advocacy, I’d recommend it. But it’s a whole lot more than that.

The UnforeseenWhat really makes The Unforeseen stand out is that it breaks new ground in what could be dubbed the poetic documentary genre. First-time director Laura Dunn does more than chronicle a history, she imbues it with visual resonance, taking the time to shoot Texas fields of grass and gurgling brooks with the cinematic panache that recalls the gorgeous cinematography of fiction narrative director Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line). And for good reason: long-time Austinite Malick was the executive producer of The Unforeseen. His input, as well as that of director of photography, Lee Daniel (who has shot most of Richard Linklater‘s films, including Slacker and Dazed and Confused), is apparent throughout the documentary. Dunn and company may even go overboard in achieving beautiful imagery, such as when a wizened farmer clutches a sickle and stands in a field watching a construction crew ripping up the earth. But I’ll forgive them that. The film feels like a feature-length version of that early 1970s “Keep America Beautiful” ad with the Native American (Chief Iron Eyes Cody) wandering through garbage heaps, and eventually shedding a tear (see the ad on YouTube) And that’s something I’ve always wanted to see.

Watching The Unforeseen immediately reminded me of Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), director Ellen Kuras‘ film that just debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s the story of a Laotian family’s emigration to the United States. I’d call it a poetic documentary as well. In fact, when I saw it, it reminded me of Malick, because Kuras (who is a long-time cinematographer for the likes of Spike Lee and Michel Gondry) is so skilled at lighting and framing a scene. Is this a growing trend? ( I hear last year’s Ghosts of Cité Soleil was similarly beautiful.) I hope so. But it doesn’t come easily.

“So many people told me that it was too beautiful,” Kuras told me at Sundance. “I was hurt. I mean, what — if the image is beautiful or striking, then it’s less real? That’s crazy.”

Kuras sent shivers up my spine when she told me about how she used sound effects as a metaphor. In one scene, the lead character, Thavisouk Phrasavat (who is also the co-director of the film), describes how a bomb essentially reduced a woman to powder. We then hear the sound of wind. “That’s the metaphor of our lives,” Kuras said about the sound effect. “The wind is all we become. We’re a whisper and then we’re gone.”

That’s poetry.

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What are your favorite poetic docs?

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen