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Through Wendell Berry’s Looking Glass

Wendell Berry / photo courtesy of www.theseerfilm.com

What is the purpose of film?

For some, it is to entertain: to draw moviegoers with humor and sex, intrigue and violence. The meaning and meat of a film matters less than the money it draws. For others, films are meant to inform and transform: to convince watchers that some piece of knowledge should change their lives.

But for Austin-based filmmaker Laura Dunn, filmmaking is primarily about telling a story. And while stories can transform, convict, and entertain, none of these things matter to her as much as being true to the story itself.

Dunn made her first film when she was an undergraduate at Yale University. She used to tackle film projects as an activist, she said in an interview, with an aim to change people’s way of thinking. “That’s when I was 19, and I’m 40 now,” she says. “I see things differently. I definitely make films to connect with people, to bring light to things that need to be seen and heard—but I don’t set out self-righteously to change people. …You want to represent people who are good, kind, and generous to trust you with their stories. You want to do that respectfully.”

And that is precisely what she has done with The Seer, a new documentary about writer Wendell Berry, set to be released at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival on Saturday. The film is co-produced and directed with her husband, Jef Sewell, and backed by executive producers Terrence Malick and Robert Redford, as well as several co-producers including Nick Offerman (fondly known as Ron Swanson on the TV comedy series “Parks and Rec”).

Berry is a Kentucky-born farmer and philosopher, essayist and poet, environmental activist and localist. He’s written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Humanities Medal, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. Those familiar with Berry’s work know that he is an outspoken advocate for “flyover country”—for towns and communities, farmers and farms neglected or even maltreated by modern politics and culture. His nonfiction work lauds a loyalty to place, to family, and to community that we’ve largely forgotten. His poetry exudes a reverence for the created world, for the glory of quotidian rituals and objects. His novels combine both these things in characters that love their towns and land. Through this immense body of work, Berry has appealed to a wide range of readers, transcending political and personal biases.

Dunn’s documentary opens on a cityscape—flashing lights, blurred movement, darkness. Then it cuts to an aerial view of the woods, as Berry recites his poetry: “I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gulleys, I saw the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley, I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.”

This opening reminded me of Berry’s novella “Remembering,” in which protagonist Andy Catlett goes to the city and feels its lack of community, of membership, and then decides to return home to the place he loves and the people he knows. The documentary gives action and picture to Berry’s words, tells the narrative through shots of city and cubicle, forest and demolished hillside.

After a long pause, it then cuts to the soft footfalls of an unpictured person through Kentucky woods, a black and white-spotted dog trotting gracefully ahead. The music is gone, and all we hear is the wind, the lowing of cattle, the rustle of leaves, the tread of footsteps, the sound of birdsong. “I have lived nearly all my life in a place I can’t remember not knowing,” we hear Berry say. “I was born to people who knew this place intimately, and I grew up knowing it intimately.”

While Dunn’s film could have focused on the man and his accomplishments, The Seer does something quite different. It looks at Berry’s community in Henry County, Kentucky—and thus gives us a glimpse through Berry’s own lens, helping us see the heart of Wendell Berry by showing us what he loves: the people and place he has devoted himself to.

photo via www.theseerfilm.com
photo via www.theseerfilm.com

The title of the film itself indicates this: a “seer” is not just one with a prophetic vision. It is also someone with a particularized vision—a person who sees through a glass, looking at something specific.

One of the key moments in Dunn’s film is when she shares a quote from an NPR interview with Berry from 1998. He had built a 40-pane window in his Kentucky farmhouse, and he always wrote by the light of that window. “When I set out, the idea of that 40-pane window was always important thematically,” Dunn said. “It was really provocative to me. He talks about looking through a frame, holding up an artifact through which you can see. There’s a beautiful contrast he draws between the frame of the window as a manmade construct, and the natural world that doesn’t behave how you’d expect it to.” This became Dunn’s inspiration for The Seer—it never shows footage of Berry himself, but rather gives us a view into his glass: letting us see what “the seer” himself sees. The closest we get to an actual glimpse of Berry is seeing him type with his old typewriter.

Part of the reason for this decision not to show Berry is, as I suspected, due to the fact that he himself did not want to be filmed. Berry’s work is very cognizant of the damages that machines—be they automobile and tractor, or television and computer—have had on human relationships. While this may not be the reason he asked not to be filmed, it fits his personality and body of work to hide his face from the camera.

Dunn could have laced together bits of footage of Berry to remedy this dilemma. But she didn’t. “This was the ultimate challenge: but for me, it was the ultimate opportunity, too,” she said. “He is such a distinct voice. To make a film, but not film him—it reflected something essential about him.” So she embraced Berry’s own reticence of the camera, and decided to paint this unique picture of his world and the people he loves.

“If you draw a portrait of someone, artistically, you don’t just take a photograph or draw the literal lines of their face,” Dunn notes. “That doesn’t express who that person is. This film was an inspiring challenge—how not to draw a picture of [Berry’s] face, but reflect who he is.”

The film is full of black and white photos of Berry and his family, taken by his close friend James Baker Hall over the years—photos that very few people have seen before. Dunn and her team used these pictures to shape a “creative composite,” showing Berry’s life journey frame by frame.

But The Seer primarily focuses on a series of inhabitants from Berry’s own Henry County, Kentucky. The film is a tribute to farmers—their hard work, love of land, and traditional values. It’s a memoir to a sort of farming that’s dwindling and dying out, as industrialized agriculture takes its place. And it’s a collection of Berry’s own calls to halt such “progress,” to ponder the dangers of our ways, to preserve the old ways and the beauty of their rhythms.

“The farm is a beautiful way of understanding relationship of ourselves to land, to each other, to God,” Dunn says. “Wendell doesn’t just isolate an environmental issue—he helps us see how interconnected these pieces are, helps us see what our culture denigrates, at such high cost to our families.”

photo via www.theseerfilm.com
photo via www.theseerfilm.com

The Seer is gentle in its message about agriculture. Berry’s work lauds the small, the sustainable, the organic; and so, too, does the film. But when Dunn interviews farmers who do not fit this model, she does not paint them as greedy villains. Rather, she shows their goodness, their love of farming, and their utter helplessness in an economic and regulatory environment that is often working against them. They all obviously love their trade and their land, their homes and families: but they don’t know how to make ends meet. They’ve adopted the famous adage, “Get big or get out.” And it’s betrayed them. This is the root of much of Wendell Berry’s writing about agriculture, and The Seer brilliantly interweaves clips from Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s famed calls to expand and industrialize in the 1970s, alongside Berry’s own poignant rebuttals. It also features interviews with Berry’s daughter Mary, who serves as executive director of the Berry Center, which aims to help encourage sustainable farming, land conservation, and “healthy regional economies.” 

In an early section of the film, Mary Berry talks about how her parents taught her to “look and see”—every time they went on a walk, they would point out the beautiful and the ugly, the well-kept and the neglected, the forgotten and the precious. This, too, reminds us of Berry’s calling as a seer. Dunn notes that in a nonfiction piece called “The Unforeseen Wilderness,” Berry wrote that “before you can be a seer, you have to be a looker.” To Dunn and her husband Jeff, “when everyone is looking at screens and phones, iPhones and computers,” this reminder to “look and see” is vital.

The Seer is a graceful piece. You can tell it took time to make—it reflects the age of something that has been well considered, aged like a good wine. It has layers of flavor and depth. The interviews are interspersed with black and white photos of Berry’s early work in Kentucky, shots of rustling trees in the woods, children playing in fields and gardens, abandoned farms. Each piece reflects an aspect of Berry’s work and vision, building a sense of longing for a home, for a place that is being abandoned. Composer Kerry Muzzey has constructed a lovely score, one that fits the quiet, thoughtful nature of The Seer. The combination of strings and soft piano, occasionally punctuated by moments of stillness, give the film a sense of reminiscence. It’s at times melancholy, thoughtful, serious, and sweet.

Despite the haunting sense of loss we might experience when seeing the helplessness of aging farmers, the shots of dilapidated barns and deserted farmhouses, there is also beauty reflected throughout the film. Much of this comes from the hope reflected in the face of younger generations, people picking up Berry’s call and embracing it. There are those who stay—and this film is also about those who stay: like Tanya Berry, who chose to follow her husband back to Kentucky, even though it was not her home, at least not at the time.

“I started this film thinking so much about Wendell and what a hero he is,” says Dunn. “But as a stay-at-home mom, as a woman, a homeschooler—the person who really stays with me, who I think about day in and day out, is his wife Tanya. She changed my way of thinking in this film. She elevates the domestic realm.”

photo via www.theseerfilm.com
photo via www.theseerfilm.com

Tanya grew up mostly in Northern California in a family of artists, notes Dunn. Her father was the Head of the University of Kentucky’s Art Department, where she also attended college as a music major. But when Wendell Berry decided to travel back home to Kentucky, Tanya followed: “I had no clue what I was getting into, but I’ve been lucky because of him, because he’s the kind of person he was, and he’s been lucky because of me, because I believe in the continuity of the home and the family.” She notes that growing up she’d lived all over the country, “moved and moved and moved,” and she had an intense desire to have a home—a place where her children could belong.

And this is a desire that many of Berry’s readers have: a yearning for a place of their own, for a home and community. His writing often draws people back to the land, to the places they’ve forgotten or neglected. This is one of the reasons why Dunn is planning to show the film at South by Southwest: Austin is her home.

“A lot of the same forces of development, change, and money that are destroying farms in Kentucky are destroying our home here,” she says. “It’s really meaningful to be able to show it at home, since it’s largely about finding your home in a world that feels so despairing a lot of times, where so many of the things you love are being destroyed. This is our home, and we’re going to start here.”

She hopes to show the film in smaller, local communities, because this would reflect the heart of Berry’s work. “If you do something trying to reflect spirit of Wendell Berry, you’re not just going to show it at big festivals and theatres, but also embrace the small, meaningful scale,” she says. “What we’re most interested in is bringing film to communities where it might inspire people, while celebrating [farmers] and their important good work.”

Wendell Berry decided that returning home and caring for his place mattered more than prestige and urban splendor; and it would seem that he’s been blessed for this decision. While he’s not a household name, recognition of his work is steadily growing. The unforeseen consequences of our agricultural and cultural developments that he warned about in the 1970s are becoming widely recognized and worried over today. Yet he’s refused to embrace a party or public movement, choosing instead to walk his own path. This means he’s angered people on both left and right—but it’s also enabled him to bridge ideological barriers and appeal to a large set of people. He’s tapped into a yearning that lies in the heart of so many: a love of home, of place, of traditions that are worth preserving and communities that are worth celebrating. We don’t want to lose these things, and Berry helps explain why.

The Seer perfectly embodies that message, entreating us not to forget or step away from our homes and our communities, but rather to restore and love them—to “look and see.” This, if any, is the transformative message that Dunn brings to her film. It’s a piece that she hopes might urge watchers “to turn away from the film, and turn into their own lives … to turn the television off and go outside.”

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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