Sundance film translates Wendell Berry’s poetry into cinematic imagery

“Look and See” captures spirit of America’s disappearing farmers

Nan Chalat Noaker
Park Record

Filmmakers Laura Dunn and her husband Jef Sewell faced a unique challenge when making their documentary about the lauded American poet Wendell Berry. The reclusive scholar did not want to appear on camera.

“It’s true. He has a very low regard for this medium,” Dunn said in a recent interview from her home in Austin, Texas.

“He doesn’t like screens. He thinks screens are contributing to the decline of literacy and that they deaden the imagination. So, it was a bit of an impediment,” she explained.

But Dunn was determined.

“I was dismayed by how few people knew of Wendell Berry,” she said of the 1960s environmental activist who, for five decades, has decried the rise of industrial agriculture and its steady displacement America’s small farmers.

In order to charm Berry into participating in a movie — starring him — Dunn said, “there was a lot of letter writing back and forth.”

She also had support from Berry’s wife, Tanya. “If not for her it wouldn’t have happened,” said Dunn.

To seal the deal, she agreed not to ask Berry to be on camera. “I told him, ‘That’s fine. In fact that is information about you, that constraint is very insightful about who you are and how you see the world.’”

It also lends the film a unique and captivating style.

Without actually seeing Berry, audiences instead find themselves intently tuned to his resonant voice and the film’s rich cinematic images of the vanishing rural Kentucky landscape that is often immortalized in his poetry.

While Berry declined to be interviewed on camera, he did agree to several audio sessions in which he read poems related to the filmmakers’ storyline. Those recordings and interviews with Berry’s family more than make up for his absence on screen.

Like Berry’s books, which are divided into chapters, Dunn and Sewell also punctuated “Look and See” with chapter headings, each illustrated with wood engravings by Wesley Bates. The intricately detailed engravings have graced several of Berry’s previous volumes of poetry and enhance the recurring theme of handmade artistry in time of mass production.

“Look and See” had enthusiastic support from executive producers Robert Redford and Terrence Malick. They had collaborated on Dunn’s previous Sundance film “The Unforeseen” whose soundtrack also opens with a Wendell Berry reading and focuses on the conflicts between industrial growth and the natural environment. When Dunn proposed making a documentary about Berry, Redford, a longtime fan, encouraged her.

Dunn also credits cinematographer Lee Daniel, whose decorated career includes, the Oscar-winning film “Boyhood,” with establishing the film’s “poetic lens.”

“He just immersed himself in the landscapes with us and responded to it,” she said, adding the use of Arri Alexa camera allowed them to use only natural light, in keeping with the film’s theme.

At times, Berry’s outlook on the country’s rural roots seems melancholy and discouraging, but the film suggests there is a touch of hope.

“Absolutely, he would say that when he first started out writing and talking about the industrialization of agriculture in 1970s, he was one of the lone voices in the wilderness. Now it is amazing to him, all these famers markets and CSAs, and the demand for local and/or organic produce — there is hope and you can see it. At the same time, he would talk about the political landscape: that rural America has been disregarded by mainstream media, by mainstream people in political power and, as a result, it is in decay economically.”

According to Dunn, “These small farmers are losing their farms like crazy. At the same time you see this interesting trend with young people coming back to the landscape … there are signs of hope, but there is a disconnect between urban consumers and rural producers.”

Her film aims to fan that spark of hope by introducing Berry to a new generation of audiences and, in so doing, reconnect the two.

The Sundance Spotlight Documentary “LOOK AND SEE: A PORTRAIT OF WENDELL BERRY” screens:
Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 6:30 p.m., at Redstone Cinema 1
Saturday, Jan. 28 at 6 p.m. at Broadway Centre Cinema 6

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