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A poet and novelist whose passionate defense of traditional agriculture has made him more an environmental icon than a literary one, Wendell Berry may not have had the prophetic abilities implied by the title of Laura Dunn’s The Seer — but he has certainly been clear-eyed about dangers to the heartland as they arise, and eloquently insistent on sounding the alarm. Sticking mostly to one corner of the turf Berry has staked out, this unusual and quite beautiful documentary seeks to connect with him by getting to know the land and those who work it near the author’s Kentucky home. Lee Daniel’s fine photography helps make this deserving of big-screen attention, while support from eco-minded celebs — Robert Redford and Terrence Malick exec produced; Nick Offerman offered hand-crafted furniture to Kickstarter donors — should attract enough attention to help the pic get beyond the fest circuit.
Evidently as an accommodation of the writer’s disinclination to take part in film projects, Dunn never shows him onscreen except in vintage clips and photos. But he speaks for her microphone, intoning poems in his rich, Johnny Cash-like voice and otherwise describing his lifelong attachment to the land his family has worked for generations. Onscreen, we get family members (identified simply as “Wife” or “Daughter”) and neighbors, mostly farmers who speak of how their lives have changed since Berry resettled in Henry County during the 1960s.
Berry intended to continue his already-going writing career (and he remained more than prolific) while tending to his acres in the traditional way. Dunn photographs a present-day tobacco harvest in which men, not machines, cut and sort the giant leafy plants. But most in these parts did what the rest of America did: While the amount of money they could make per acre plummeted, they acquired more acres, then bought the tremendously expensive machines that allowed them to work this land, then expanded further to pay for the machines.
Though Berry has spoken for many causes during his life, it’s this one the film settles on. We hear of the impact his 1977 The Unsettling of America had on people’s understanding of the havoc these shifts caused to rural social structures; we watch clips in which he debates one-time U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, an advocate of industrialized farming. Dunn listens sympathetically to farmers who can barely keep their vast operations going, to young ones who choose farming despite knowing the cost. Allowing some optimism in, she speaks to Steve Smith, who shifted to organic farming in the ‘90s before he knew about the poet/advocate living nearby. Customers recommended Berry’s work, which moved him: Farmers “weren’t used to being respected” by those who wrote books, he recalls.
Respect for farmers radiates from this film, which when not discussing Berry directly offers vintage news clips of agricultural towns protesting Butz’s “Adapt or Die” mentality. It’s there in shots of rows of crops and of pastures whose “weeds” are beautiful. It’s certainly there in the steady, low voice of the man who sits behind his 40-paned window, writing about the natural world he sees framed beyond.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Production company: Two Birds Film
Director: Laura Dunn
Producers: Jef Sewell, Laura Dunn
Executive producers: Robert Redford, Terrence Malick
Director of photography: Lee Daniel
Editor: Laura Dunn
Composer: Kerry Muzzey
Not rated, 83 minutes