Film buffs and industry insiders attending the annual Sundance Film Festival in Utah will get a glimpse of Kentucky through the words and vision of one our most notable writers, Wendell Berry. “Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” will screen in the “Spotlight” section of the renowned film fest on Friday, Jan. 20.
“Look and See,” formerly known as “The Seer,” premiered last year at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, to much acclaim, but the time between the two festivals allowed the filmmakers to tweak the film and its title. Directed by Laura Dunn (“The Unforeseen”) and produced by big Hollywood names like Robert Redford, Terrence Malick and Nick Offerman, the film also includes many Kentuckians who worked to get it to the screen, including co-producers Gill Holland, Owsley Brown III and Elaine Musselman.
“Look and See” is a beautiful love letter from Kentucky to the world, alerting people to the changing landscapes and shifting values of rural America. It’s not necessarily a documentary on Wendell Berry, it’s a documentary on his place in the world — his home, his family, his farm and his neighbors in Henry County — and the ongoing plight of farmers today.
In fact, Berry only appears in the 82-minute film in photographs, although he lends his voice as a sort-of narrator, reading from his more than 40 works of poetry, nonfiction and fiction. That was intentional, according to director Dunn, who also tells Insider that Berry doesn’t have much respect for the genre of film.
“My time with Wendell was very small, but it was profound,” she says. “Film is not his medium, and he doesn’t have a great deal of respect for it.”
In the doc, Berry says he feels film is constricting to the storyteller, and there are always parameters an artist must work within — the four borders of a frame.
Planting the Seed
Berry has been a favorite writer of Dunn’s for a long time. She recalls reading his work in high school in rural Mississippi, and she grew up the daughter of a single mother who worked in the corn industry and whose family came from a long line of horticulturists.
“I think I have a proclivity for issues around agriculture,” she says.
It was while filming her first documentary in 2007, “The Unforeseen,” about the controversial, rapid development of her hometown of Austin, Texas, that she reconnected with her love of Berry. Both Robert Redford and Terrence Malick were producers on that project as well, and Malick suggested Dunn reach out to the Kentucky poet to help contextualize the film.
Dunn and Berry have corresponded through back-and-forth letters ever since. After releasing the successful film and garnering much acclaim and awards, Dunn was now brainstorming her next project. And she kept coming back to Berry.
“I was surprised at how few people knew of his work,” she says. “I felt like if I’m going to do a film, I want to do something that draws more attention to his work. And Wendell is an important writer to Robert Redford also, so both he and Terry (Malick) were into the idea of doing something more extensive on Wendell’s work.”
Dunn went to work conceiving what a portrait of Berry might look like. And through the back-and-forth with the 82-year-old poet laureate, she quickly realized it would need to be about his home.
“He said to me once, ‘I am nothing but for the people on the land, the people who are my neighbors and my family and my place,'” recalls Dunn. “He is his place. He doesn’t like the idolatry of famous figures. It’s not about the person, it’s about the community and the membership.”
She also had to figure out how to shine a light on someone who shuns attention. She learned this through their many conversations via pen and paper.
“You ask a question, and he’s never going to come at you with the answer you expect,” says Dunn. “He’s very thoughtful — a gentlemen. But he’s private and doesn’t want a lot of attention. So there’s a challenge in that, and you have to be very respectful of that.”
Tending the Fields
Dunn and her crew went to work in the summer of 2012, exploring the farmlands of Henry County and talking to Berry’s family and neighbors. Berry’s wife Tanya helped line up the documentary’s subjects and played an integral part in the film. Berry’s daughter Mary, his son-in-law Steve Smith and many others also appear in the film.
Dunn and cinematographer Lee Daniel wanted to capture all four Kentucky seasons throughout the film, and they spent nearly three years doing so. Part of that had to do with the budget, and part of that was because she had a baby shortly after the initial shoot.
They wrapped up shooting in the summer of 2014 and ended up filming in Henry, Trimble and Owen counties. They thought “The Seer” would be a fitting title, as Berry possesses that artsy, mystical-like quality of foretelling the future. When they ran that by him, Berry scoffed.
“He did not like ‘The Seer.’ He felt it intimated him as a kind of profit, and he didn’t want that kind of attention,” says Dunn. “He wanted it to be more about the place and the community, so we changed the name out of respect for him.”
After debuting the film at SXSW, Dunn and her crew received constructive feedback and quickly went to work re-editing, re-focusing and tightening the material. Plus, the outcome of the presidential election forced them to go back and add in some thoughts from Berry.
“Post Trump election, we felt like there was suddenly an interest in rural America, and the two coasts started to care a little more,” says Dunn. “So we added audio from Wendell talking about that — the media attention that’s taking place in rural America.”
The role of the farmer in modern-day society is something Berry often writes about, and it is a central theme of “Look and See” as well. A chart in the film shows the demand for organic produce increasing, but the number of small family farmers declining. And while the popularity of farmers markets and CSAs continues to grow, sustainable agriculture on a large scale isn’t possible if it’s to be done right (read: without the use of mass chemicals).
“You see the decline of rural America very dramatically. There’s no economy there, there’s no support structures for rural farmers, and they’re the people producing all this food there’s a demand for,” says Dunn. “There’s a real gap there — between the urban consumer and the rural producer — and that’s very frightening.”
It’s true that farms are growing, but the number of farmers is actually going down as corporate interests and large companies swoop in to gobble up the land.
“There certainly doesn’t look like there will be any continued or new support under the Trump Administration for the middle man — the small family farmer,” Dunn adds. “Even though rural America thinks Trump represents them, unfortunately I think once again there’s a misappropriation of certain rural identity, and really it’s going to be about the corporate interest and industrial agriculture.”
Harvesting the Crop
Dunn and the crew hope the film inspires people to further invest in sustainable agriculture and sparks conversation and action. While the situation may appear bleak, Berry and a handful of both city and country mice still have hope.
“Wendell is adamant about cultivating hope,” says Dunn. “He’s looking at this and saying, ‘You can’t just sit around and cry. You’ve gotta give the people hope.’ You kind of have to look at both viewpoints: Yes, in a larger context, it is terrifying. But if you look on a small, local scale, there are enormous signs of hope.”
Dunn, who has spent time in Louisville and is good friends with co-producer and Louisville entrepreneur Gill Holland, believes Louisville is one of these pockets in the country where things are working.
“With Mary Berry, Gill Holland, the Browns and all of them, there’s a lot of stuff going on there to connect the urban consumer to the rural producer and create a local and regional economy that supports farmers,” she says. “Kentucky is a great place to look at these things. It’s the first state that went to Trump — there’s a big rural population there, and it feels disenfranchised by the bigger political system. You’ve gotta listen to that and look at it. Why do people feel so disconnected? Why do people not see where their interests are lying with political candidates?”
Holland tells Insider it’s certainly no coincidence that “Look and See” will be screening at the same time of Trump’s inauguration.
“In some ways, Laura captured the Midwest zeitgeist that had such an impact on the selection of our country’s incoming leader,” says Holland. “Laura is a consummate director in terms of melding image and story and sound perfectly. She had Wendell’s words and got his voice, so two of those were covered by our Kentucky author laureate, and then Lee Daniel provided epic visuals, so I think the film is right up there with ‘Stranger With a Camera’ in the pantheon of best Kentucky-shot films ever. We are very proud of the final product.”
Holland will be traveling to Sundance as well next week, and he is proud to stand behind a film that will introduce thousands to one of our most respected writers.
“I really think now that (Bob) Dylan has his Nobel Prize for Literature, that Wendell should be next,” he says. “In terms of everything we do in the local food scene in NuLu and Louisville, we all spring from the Berry branch of thinking, if you will.”
After Sundance, Dunn would like to bring the film back to Kentucky and screen it in Louisville and Lexington, and also take it to the rural counties and have a sort of small-town tour. She pictures communities gathering to watch the movie projected onto the side of large tobacco barns.
“I’d like to try and generate conversation,” says Dunn. “After the election, I remember Wendell saying that if Hillary would have won, we’d still be on the losing side. He put it this way, ‘We don’t win, we don’t lose, we just keep on.'”