Laura Dunn: Seeing the world of Wendell Berry

Illustration based on the "Look & See" movie poster, which features wood engraving by Wesley Bates and typography by Mark Melnick. Image courtesy of Two Birds Film

The director of ‘Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry’ says her film is an effort to transport viewers to the world of the Kentucky poet and farmer -- his place -- what he sees, and what he cares about.

A portrait is a likeness of someone, but there are many ways to draw a portrait, says Laura Dunn, the director, producer and editor of the documentary “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.”

Filmed in Henry County, Kentucky, and initially released in 2016, “Look & See” paints a portrait of Berry without his ever appearing on camera. After Berry made clear that he didn’t want to be filmed, Dunn decided to take another approach.

“He explained that he is his place,” Dunn said. “That he’s nothing but for the people around him -- his family, his neighbors, his friends.

“That’s where I got the idea of a portrait. It’s the shape of him, but the frames of this portrait are his place -- what he sees, and what he cares about.”


Laura Dunn

Dunn said she wanted the film to transport viewers to Berry’s world, one that is “so counter to the culture that we’re in.”

“When you walk into his world, it’s a respite from a world that feels more and more alien,” Dunn said.

After a re-edit last fall, “ Look & See” was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Though the film is primarily focused on farming in Henry County, Dunn said it is relevant to both rural and urban dwellers, especially in America’s current political environment.

“If you’re going to ignore the entire heartland of America, if you are going to disregard rural communities -- which our country has a long history of doing -- that has political implications for everybody,” she said.

Dunn was at Duke earlier this year for a screening of the film, sponsored by the Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation and the Nicholas School of the Environment. She spoke about the film with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: How did you decide to make a film about Wendell Berry?

My last film, “The Unforeseen,” was about development in Austin. I worked with Terrence Malick on that. We were looking at ways to contextualize the Austin story within a larger frame, and he said I should look at Wendell Berry.

I was aware of Wendell’s works since high school. But when Terry said to look again, I read a lot of Wendell’s poems, and found poems that resonated with what I was trying to say in “The Unforeseen.” In 2004, I wrote to Wendell and asked if he’d record a poem and let me use it in the film.

He graciously agreed. So I went and met with him, and he recorded the poem, and it was in the film.

The film toured all over the place, but I was surprised how few people seemed to know of Wendell Berry.

People would say, “Whose voice is that? Who’s that writer?”

And I would tell them, “Wendell Berry,” assuming everyone knew of him. I found that people either know who Wendell Berry is and he means a great deal to them or people have never heard of him.

I was surprised by that, and I thought I’d like to draw more attention to his work. That’s how it started.

I wrote letters back and forth with him, suggesting this idea. It was a bit of a song and dance, because he doesn’t want the attention.

His family told me that he’s had hundreds and hundreds of requests to make a film about him, and he’s declined every time. He said yes to me, and then he said no, and then yes, and then no. Ultimately, it was his wife, Tanya, who said, “I want you to come, and I want you to do this.” It was really through her that the film came about.

Q: This may seem like an obvious question, but what’s the movie about? The title is “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” but the viewer never sees him, other than in old photographs, and only hears his voice on occasion.

I wanted to make a portrait. I didn’t want to do a sprawling issues piece. I had done that, and artistically, I was inspired by the idea of a portrait -- something more intimate.

If you look at the definition of a portrait, it’s a likeness of someone. There are many different ways to draw a portrait.

When I got to know Wendell better, he made it clear that, first, he didn’t want to be on camera and, second, no story could be about him, because we live in a culture where people like to idolize people and put them up on a pedestal that’s not real.

He explained that he is his place, that he’s nothing but for the people around him -- his family, his neighbors, his friends.

That’s where I got the idea of a portrait. It’s the shape of him, but the frames of this portrait are his place -- what he sees, and what he cares about. It can’t be the likeness of his face, because that wouldn’t reflect the essence, just some piece of the essence of this person.

Q: In the film, he talks about frames, and at one point, he comments on the limitations of cameras -- how it all depends on where you place the camera and how you frame the view.

Absolutely. He said to me on a number of occasions that film is a medium that contributes to illiteracy and numbs the imagination. He thinks that film and the visual culture we’re in are a negative thing.

I agree with him in a lot of ways. I use film as a medium because it’s what people pay attention to, and I’m trying to convey messages.

But I didn’t think a portrait of Wendell Berry could be a typical, traditional biopic. He is someone who’s always going against the grain, always bending the arc. If you ask him a question, he’ll come at it from a totally different place.

I wanted a film that gave some little piece of his world and of him. That’s what I was going for.

Q: Speak some to the irony of making a film about someone who’s so skeptical of film.

It’s a wonderful challenge, because I myself am skeptical of film. I tend to think in words more than images. The two parts of filmmaking I love the most are the interviews and the editing. I do all the editing, and my editing is definitely designed around the words.

Wendell Berry articulates and conveys a world that is so counter to the culture that we’re in. When you walk into his world, it’s a respite from a world that feels more and more alien -- a world that’s fast-paced with a lack of community and destruction of nature and detachment from one another, detachment from meaning, detachment from our children, a disconnection from the land that sustains us.

All these things that bring my soul much comfort are rapidly disappearing. Wendell’s world represents a counter to that. I was trying to transport the viewer to this other world.

But certainly, there’s a tension there. I used to ask Wendell, “Could you make a film that makes people want to turn away from it?”

And he was asking, “What do people do after seeing the film?”

I’d say, “It would be great if they turn their TV off and go get a book or take a walk outside.”

Q: To some extent, the film is about Berry’s approach to farming and a different kind of agriculture. But what does the film have to say to urban dwellers or people who aren’t interested in farming and who may know nothing about him?

In this new political context, post-Trump election, there’s a relevance to the film no matter where you live. Because if you’re going to ignore the entire heartland of America, if you are going to disregard rural communities -- which our country has a long history of doing -- that has political implications for everybody.

That’s one argument -- that you should pay attention. You should look at rural America and see that there’s complexity and beauty and struggle and a lot more dimension to the American story than has been relayed in the media for a long time.

But also, Wendell Berry isn’t just someone who writes nonfiction essays about agriculture. He’s written almost 60 books. His fiction is beautiful. He writes some of the most wonderful stories and poetry.

And his essays aren’t just about farming. He writes about economics; he writes about theology; he writes about major cultural issues. He’s a great thinker. It’s ideas that make me like Wendell Berry.

So it’s not just about farming. Wendell is a farmer, and he comes from a farming family, and he writes about farming as an art. It’s this fundamental and spiritual way of relating to the land that sustains us. It’s not what we made; it’s what we depend on. It’s where we come from. It’s where we return to.

It frames a kind of morality that he embraces and writes about. But the rural landscapes of this country are in absolute decay, and there are big consequences. It’s an economic picture that we’ve embraced, and an agricultural one too, and he talks about that.

It’s not just the ethos of land stewardship. It’s all the cultural values that go along with that, and it’s disappearing.

Q: Tell us about making the film. I read that you ended up with 100 hours of film.

In documentaries, you don’t start out with your whole funding. You get a little bit of funding, you go work, you have a show, you raise a little bit more money, and so it’s a process.

I started the concept about seven years ago, but I found myself pregnant with twins and paused for a bit, and then came back to it.

We started shooting in August 2012. I wanted to get all four seasons in Henry County, Kentucky. If I had been able to shoot straight through for four seasons, it would have been great, but I had two babies in the course of that, so it slowed me down a little.

The last shoot was in the summer of 2015. We covered three seasons over those three years. And then I edited.

We had about 100 hours of footage, and I edited it. I don’t have any assistants, and I’m a full-time stay-at-home mom, so I did it at night.

That was the most brutal part of this project, honestly. I home-school my kids; I really want to be with them. So it means you’re working two full-time jobs. On a personal level, by far the hardest part of this project was just exhaustion from doing two full-time jobs. But it was hopefully worth it.

Q: At one point last fall, you pulled the film and reworked it and changed the title. Tell us about that.

Wendell did not like the title. The original title was “The Seer,” which I thought was a good title. My husband and co-director, Jef Sewell, came up with it.

We were trying to solve this problem -- it’s a film about a person, but you don’t see him. We were trying to have a title that would allude to that.

But “The Seer” is also kind of a prophetic person. Wendell wrote me that he was uncomfortable with it because it gave him more credit than he deserves or can deal with. We respected that, of course.

There’s a place in the film where his daughter talks about her parents, and how they always taught her to “look and see.”

“Look at the world around you. Notice this. This is good. This is beautiful. This is ugly. This is a scar.”

It’s such a basic concept, and yet all of us miss it -- look and see the world around you. Also, it’s a command that Wendell is always telling us -- look out at the world, rather than at ourselves, and notice things. So that was the title change.

Why did we pull it? We premiered it in March 2016, at South by Southwest. Later, we screened it in Kentucky for a week and got feedback from the Berrys. Tanya felt like the ending was too despairing. She wanted something more hopeful.

So we pulled it and worked on it.

In that time, Donald Trump was elected, and everyone all of a sudden started asking, “What’s going on for all of America?” and Sundance wanted to screen it. It re-emerged in a new way.

Q: Did making this film change you in any way?

I think it certainly changed me.

I did several audio interviews with Wendell. I told him from the beginning, “I’m not going to trick you and put you on camera. I respect that you don’t want to do that.”

But I did a lot of audio interviews. I would sit with him in his living room and ask him all sorts of questions and get him to read different selections.

I did that maybe four times, to the point where he was sick of me. Also, every time we would go to shoot, I would go and sit with him -- and sometimes he’d give me a couple of hours -- and talk with him.

In one of those interviews, Wendell asked me how I was changed by this. He said it was important to him that I was the product, not the film -- that how I was affected and how I was changed mattered more than the film itself.

That stayed with me. I think the film is continuing to change me in a couple of ways.

One, it re-convicts me of my principles, because if you are trying to work against the grain and cultural trends, it takes a lot of commitment. Working with him and his wife and other people in Henry County is convicting, because you see this world where people aren’t caught up in fast-paced technology. There’s a different set of values.

It has reinforced that for me in my own life. Some of the choices we’re making for our own children, our own family, are very much influenced by being there. It’s a kind of conservatism in a really beautiful way, not trying to make as much money as you can or live as big and fast as you can. It’s a simple idea, but if you apply it to your own life, it has profound effects.

The other thing is that Tanya Berry has had a big influence on me as a woman who works but is also a mom. I went to Yale and I was raised by a very feminist mom, and I’m grateful for those opportunities. But you’re trying to be a mom and you’re straddling these worlds of work and motherhood. The domestic realm is not one that’s really elevated in our culture. But Tanya gave me this example of how those can be more integrated.

Q: In the film, she talked about recovering the notion that your art is your life and your life is your art.

Totally. Your home, your children, your space, your community -- to imbue the domestic spirit with that artfulness, and inspiration, and dignity, and integration, is huge. Honestly, what probably changed me more than anything was her.