The Farmer and the Film
Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry
Brent Schnipke

I was first introduced to Wendell Berry by a college mentor, and, like many who have read his writing, I have been grappling with the call to live differently—to live better—ever since. Having read quite a bit of his published work, I had mixed feelings when I learned of the recent documentary, Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, because a film seems at least partially antithetical to Berry’s central message. As an attempt to deal with this cognitive dissonance, I chose to watch the film in the chaapel of my alma mater, Mount Vernon Nazarene University, at the only public screening in Ohio. The film went to Netflix a few days before the showing, yet it seemed right to watch it in a community, especially the one that had introduced me to Berry. (And although he would certainly advocate that “there are no unsacred places,” I was happy to watch it in that particular place on earth.)

posterAccording to the subtitle, Look and See is a portrait of a man, Wendell Berry. There are some striking things about this: for one, it isn’t all that common to watch a biographical documentary about a living individual. More striking still is the fact that the entire perspective and tone of the film is that of a historical documentary.  Filmmaker Laura Dunn uses no original video footage of Berry himself. There is original audio in the form of Berry answering some interview questions, as well as video footage of his wife, Tanya, and his daughter, Mary. There is also a grainy video of Berry speaking at a panel from many years ago, and many pictures of him, though none recent—all of which give the impression that the film’s subject might be dead. (I suspect the filmmakers would have gladly included original video, which would have changed the whole tone, but this would have represented a moral compromise for the technology-eschewing, simplicity-loving Berry—and he isn’t a man who has made an impact by compromising his morals.)

Most of the film’s footage, though, is none of the above. Instead, we see long shots of rural Kentucky, the fictional and actual location of Berry’s literary and life focus. These long shots, which intend to portray the beauty of the land, do certainly create an ethereal sense as one watches the movie, and the pastoral shots are often paired with thoughtful axioms spoken by Berry. This structure creates a somewhat slow pace; even though the film is just eighty minutes long, it feels much longer. Slowing down is something Berry would advocate for as a means to notice more of the world, or simply as an end unto itself, so I didn’t mind this at all.

The film carefully attends to the vision that Berry laid out in his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America, and has been writing about ever since. It includes interviews with farmers old and young, a discussion of organic and community-based farming, some criticisms of the modern agricultural economy, and Berry’s thoughts on these subjects and more—some in the form of old audio and video snippets and some in recent recordings. The film does not include a formal call to action, but it provides enough examples of contemporary problems plaguing American farms that the viewer is compelled to consider what steps must be taken to improve the situation.

And yet, I feel as though something was missing from the project. Despite my own mixed feelings about the appropriateness of a Wendell Berry film, I conceded before watching it that any incongruity between Berry’s message and the medium of film would probably be worth it if it introduced more people to his writing and work. I’m not sure if this film will do that or not. It certainly has a wide enough distribution to do so, and a trio of A-list producers—Robert Redford, Terrence Malick, and Nick Offerman—may be a draw for some unfamiliar with Berry. Offerman is a longtime fan of Wendell Berry and has spoken publicly of wanting Berry’s writing to be more well-known. I imagine this was the impetus for creating Look and See, but to me it still feels like a film by Wendell Berry fans, for Wendell Berry fans. I was inclined to like the film because of how much I already admired Berry, but it is hard to imagine that it will hold the attention of someone who is not yet converted.

Additionally, eighty minutes seems hardly enough time to create a true portrait of a man who has done so much across many genres and decades. I am challenged by Berry’s writings on farming, ethical land use, and food production, but those aren’t the primary draw for me—I like him as a poet of beautiful language, an essayist of clarity and wry humor, and a creator of characters both simple and complex. In What are People For?, he calls himself “a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts.” Look and See is primarily about the farmer; I was hoping for more of the artist to shine through. Further, the spiritual elements of Berry’s writing cannot be understated, and yet the film manages to nearly ignore this aspect. Berry is a writer whose works point to the goodness of God and His created earth; for a film about this writer and this earth, I found it odd not to hear about this.

Despite all this, I did like the film. Much of Berry’s writing about culture and agriculture has been with the objective of bringing more attention to the problems of his people, which this film will almost certainly do. It reminded me as well of my own need to be accountable for how I live and, especially, how I eat—something I understand every time I read Berry but something that is still hard to keep in mind. Finally, Lee Daniels’ cinematography is excellent. The footage of idyllic American landscapes paired with truly beautiful words by one of my favorite authors was at times enough to bring tears to my eyes. Whatever the film’s faults, I found myself at the end thankful for the images given by the film and its underlying vision—and for the vision stirred within this viewer, at least, of this world made whole once again.

Brent Schnipke
is a fourth-year medical student in Dayton, Ohio. His professional interests include mental health, medical humanities, medical education, leadership, and mentorship. Brent can be found on social media @brentschnipke.

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