LOOK & SEE: A PORTRAIT OF WENDELL BERRY: Smoke & Farmland

Originally titled the ‘The Seer’ at SXSW, the documentary has subsequently been re-titled to match the ongoing palpably conspicuous political discussions that are ongoing in America at this time. Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry‘ is an evocative and plaintive portrayal of writer, Wendell Berry and by proxy, his cherished muse of rural American life. He is often described as a bit of an enigma when attempting to classify his vast skill set, his own wife, Tanya said; “some people would think he’s a novelist and some think he’s an essayist and some think he’s a poet – and it kind of drift off into nothing in particular.”

It will be the first documentary based upon Berry, inviting the audience into his remarkable life, delivering both a driving narrative and powerful message. It was filmed in the picturesque undulating hills of Henry County in Kentucky, the writers pastoral hometown since 1964 after relocating from the New York University college in the Bronx.

Berry acts as an almost other-worldly presence throughout due to declining an interview on camera, he instead acts as both narrator and is seen in archive footage. Utilising a combination of breathtaking cinematography by Lee Daniels and infusing it with his own prose, ‘A Timbered Choir‘, Dunn showcases a non-conformity to traditional biopic structure.

LOOK & SEE: A Portrait of Wendell Berry - Smoke & Farmland
source: Two Birds Film

In junction with this effort – Dunn managed to capture interviews with both Tanya and his daughter, Mary who discuss his deep roots within the community. He is considered a real advocate to represent the views of his local farmers, as they too are conflicted with their own traditions and the evolution of farming technology and ensuing cost increases.

One farmer, Steve Smith, admitted he struggled with the idea of abandoning his age old craft until he converted to organic farming. Part way through, the viewer is shown a shocking statistic, that between 1950 and 2000 in the USA, farm numbers have halved and yet the per acre workload has double.

Festival Darling to Box Office Hit?

The project attracted the attention of producers; Nick Offerman, Robert Redford and Terrence Malik, an impressive feat to say the least. Both Redford and Malik had worked as the executive producers on director Laura Dunn first project, ‘The Unforeseen‘.

LOOK & SEE: A Portrait of Wendell Berry - Smoke & Farmland
source: Two Birds Film

It was a similar genre of film, in that it exhibits a clash between preservationists and the developers of ‘Barton Springs’ in Austin, Texas. It was the ‘Santa Clara Valley‘ penned by Berry himself that drove Dunn to feature him as the focus of her next picture – she used his book ‘The Unsettling of America’ as the main premise for the narrative.

Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry has managed to accrue a triumvirate of awards at SXSW, Nashville Film Festival and the Environmental Film Festival but whether its passion for environmental activism will ignite the same for the masses remains to be seen. For those who are more familiar with the author’s work, or problems facing the farming community, perhaps so. But, it may struggle with a larger audience.

Beneath the Surface

Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry acts as a vitrine of its own subliminal message, “the testimonies of his family and neighbours, all of whom are being deeply affected by the industrial and economic changes to their agrarian way of life.” An apparent stoic for tradition, Berry deplores the modernisation of the agricultural industry, believing it to detract from the long established values that evolve as a result of living off the land. He once described himself as, “a person who takes the gospel seriously.”

LOOK & SEE: A Portrait of Wendell Berry - Smoke & Farmland
source: Two Birds Film

In 2011, ‘The Barry Center‘, a non-profit organisation was established. Its mission was to bring an amalgam of knowledge, cohesiveness and focus in aid of preventing ruinous change to the agricultural system. Also, taking into consideration the environment and the health of the local people themselves.  Through a consolidation of past and present study, the organisation wants to establish and envision the future for the farming business.

However, not all the risks and controversy are plausible. Employing time-lapse film as a means of orchestrating the poetry seems fairly meta. Also, Berry dissolves the argument that, “peoples acceptance of the money economy is the only economy” stating that, forgive the cliche but, ‘the best things in life are free’ – he clutches at the idea of flowers, specifically dandelions, which arguably would be free until someone finds a way to make money by selling them.

In Conclusion

Any advocate for the environment and sustainable farming would enjoy Dunn’s documentary. Although, it can be a fairly controversial to sympathize with the farmers due to the nature of the crop, tobacco. Just like it would be hard to pity farmers growing plants like coca in Columbia. According to a recent study by the World Health Organisation, tobacco is responsible for more than seven million deaths per year. It seemingly, like smoking, leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

What are your thoughts? Should we look into a more sustainable method of farming? Does the substance of the crop affect the sympathy we have for farmers? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry opened at the IFC Center on June 30th. For all international release dates, see here.

Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.