The Seer

Filmmaker Laura Dunn has been reading and following Wendell Berry since she was in high school. Her new documentary, “The Seer,” is about Berry’s life of farming and writing in Henry County, Kentucky—his birthplace and family home for generations—and about his ongoing critique of how traditional, small-scale family farming, such as his own, has all but been destroyed by industrial agriculture. The film had its world premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, garnering a Special Award for Visual Design; it also won Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at 2016 Nashville Film Festival. 

When asked about the impetus for this film—specifically whether it was Berry’s words or work that inspired it—Dunn replied that the two are inseparable. And she alluded to her last film, “The Unforeseen,” a documentary about real estate development jeopardizing the Barton Creek watershed in Austin. In it, she used voice-overs of Berry reading “Santa Clara Valley,” a poem decrying the human small-mindedness and greed ruining Earth’s natural bounty and beauty. “I was surprised more people didn’t know about Berry,” she said. “And I got interested in making a film about him in hopes of enticing more people to buy a Wendell Berry book and go from there.”

Wendell Berry himself (famous for shunning screens of all types) is not in the film however, except in voice, old photographs and film clips from his 1974 talk at the Agriculture for a Small Planet Symposium in Spokane, Washington, at Expo ’74, a world’s fair about environmental issues. The talk resounds with Berry’s outrage at USDA policies—especially under Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz—devised to push small farmers out and industrial-scale farmers in. Throughout the film, Dunn juxtaposes clips of Berry’s talk and shots of Henry County farmers and farm scenes with clips of Butz ordering farmers in various ways “to adapt or die.” Berry’s Spokane talk was the seed of his 1977 book, “The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture,” perhaps his most widely influential work and the one that most informs Dunn’s film.

The film opens with music by Kerry Muzzey against jolting images of contemporary displacement and destruction accelerated to a frenzy: vehicles speeding on freeways; mountain tops being removed for coal; people running to catch trains and planes; bombs exploding in war zones; cranes building skyscrapers; planes spraying agricultural chemicals on vast fields; and people absorbed in mobile devices, oblivious to all else. At some point in this sequence, music gives way to a voice-over of Berry reading his poem “A Timbered Choir,” which, similar to “Santa Clara Valley,” decries that “every place had been displaced” and most people rendered homeless, “having never known where they were going, having never known where they came from.”

The screen goes dark and silent briefly, and next comes the sound of footfall on a leaf-covered path behind a black and white dog. We have entered Berry country—his farm and his community of Port Royal, Kentucky. Dunn organizes the film into five chapters and an epilogue, titled after some of Berry’s titles and themes. As the chapters unfold, Berry and members of his family and community reflect on the particular ways their daily lives have been changed by the demise of the small-scale, diversified farming that flourished before the USDA concentrated land ownership into only a few hands, replaced people with machines and chemicals and, in the words of one of the farmers, changed farming “from an art to an industry.” 

The film succeeds in its earnest attempt to bring to light the essence of Wendell Berry’s passion. “The film makes clear that certain things going largely unquestioned must be thought about,” said Mary Berry—daughter of Wendell and his wife Tanya, and the executive director of The Berry Center, a nonprofit dedicated to putting Wendell Berry’s writings to work. “One is the problem of overproduction, another the need for some kind of parity pricing so that it’s not just a race to the bottom for farmers. We need to create an economy around local food production for local markets.” 

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by Pamela Walker