Look and See . . . and listen, too

Park City, Utah -- Laura Dunn’s documentary about Wendell Berry, the celebrated American author, environmental activist and defender of agrarian values, is a perfect fit in Sundance’s New Climate program.

Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, begins with a dizzying montage of scenes of modern life that depict an alienating, even terrifying, reality. Against stark images of open-pit mining, clear-cut forests and sanitized workplaces, we hear Berry’s lilting voice reading his elegiac poem “A Timbered Choir,” about mankind’s senseless adherence to “the objective,” the drive to accumulate wealth, status and self-actualization at the expense of all else.

From the montage, the film abruptly switches gears as the camera follows a border collie trotting happily along a forest path glowing with golden hues. It’s autumn in Henry County, Kentucky, where Berry, 82, has lived, farmed and written for decades. As the dog passes through the forest, we hear the sounds of the woods themselves. Filmmaker Dunn invites us to not only to look and see Berry’s bucolic world, but to listen to it, too: the crunching of fallen leaves underfoot; the flutelike song of a veery; the familiar trill of a song sparrow; and the unmistakable calls of blue jay and woodpecker in the distance.

Using the passage of a year’s worth of seasons to give her film structure, Dunn limns Berry’s world and the values he espouses in his writing and activism. He advocates a radical turn away from soul-less technology and industrialized agriculture, and a turning toward a simpler life. His compass points are the traditional values of thrift, marriage, family, respect for the land, neighbourliness and democracy. It’s not all about the endless drive for more and bigger. “The world is full of free, beautiful things” like flowers, Berry says, as the camera alights on a field of dandelions gone to seed.

Strangely for a biopic, Berry himself is never on camera. Instead, we discover him through candid interviews with family members — Berry’s wife, Tanya, and his daughter, Mary (married to Steve Smith, who speaks eloquently of how both his farm and his life have improved since he abandoned industrialized agriculture for sustainable, organic farming). A variety of Berry's neighbours are also heard from, hard-working people struggling to make a life farming in the “agribusiness nightmare” characterized by mechanized labor, chemical fertilizers, monstrously huge machines and matching debt. As Mary Berry says, this type of industrialized agriculture “works against nature so it's not in any way sustainable and it's made slaves out of a lot of people.”

As delightful as the images of fields, forests and flowers are, it's a pleasure to see Berry's indoor world, as well. Cinematographer Lee Daniels’ camera turns to the church-like room at the farm where Berry ’s celebrated writing life takes place. Sitting at a long wooden desk in front of a window with 40 square panes, Berry has written volumes of poetry, fiction and essays that are a rhapsody for a self-sustaining agrarian life that respects and is in balance with Mother Nature. He doesn’t say such a life will be easy. Far from it. “This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is its possibility,” he says, reading from his poem “A Vision.”

Look and See, which premiered at South by Southwest last year under the title The Seer, was executive produced by Robert Redford and Terrence Malick, who also had the same roles on Dunn’s previous documentary, The Unforeseen. I hope the Berry film makes it to Hot Docs 2017 in Toronto.

Look and See publicity still

Wendell Berry writes in front of his many-paned window at his farm in Henry County, Kentucky, in a decades-old photograph shown in Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry that screened at the Sundance Film Festival Friday.

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© 2016 M.L. Bream