One of Kentucky’s most famous authors is not the subject of a documentary that bears his name.
“The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” is not truly a documentary about Wendell Berry, but rather uses his narrative to show hardworking farmers from Berry’s Henry County and the challenges they face from the rise of industrial agriculture, said Laura Dunn, the documentary’s director, producer and editor. The 82-minute film, to be shown Thursday at the Kentucky Theatre, was filmed over the course of three years.
In 1965, Wendell Berry bought a farmhouse in Henry County. Since then, his relationship with the land has fueled many of his writings. Berry is an former professor at the University of Kentucky and an award-winning author, known for pieces including “The Mad Farmer Poems,” “Hannah Coulter” and “The Unforeseen Wilderness”. He has written more than 40 works of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
Executive producers for “The Seer” include director Terrence Malick, and actor and director Robert Redford, who previously worked on Dunn’s documentary “The Unforeseen.” Kentuckians Elaine Musselman, Owsley Brown III and Gill Holland co-produced the film. Nick Offerman, known for playing Ron Swanson on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and a Berry fan, was a co-producer.
Dunn said she met Berry while working on a previous documentary in 2002. She traveled from Texas to Kentucky to record Berry reading one of his poems for the project. About 2007, she chose Berry as her next subject. He was open to the idea, and he and Dunn talked about the film a few more times. Dunn said that when she began organizing a crew to come to Henry County, Berry backed out of the film. Later, though, Berry’s wife, Tanya, called and said Berry would do the documentary.
This was when the film’s message began to evolve. Berry didn’t want the narrative to focus on himself, so Dunn, who has worked on previous documentaries on social issues, turned the narrative to show how rural societies are surviving as the farming industry becomes marked by chemical fertilizers, machine labor and erosion.
“There’s this trendy conversation around food,” Dunn said. “There’s been lots of films about it, there’s a big organic food movement, you know, there are farmers markets and Whole Foods and all kinds of media around food and yet ... there’s not a whole lot of talk about farmers, especially farmers in the middle, sort of middle, multigenerational farmers, not the big huge corporate farmers, not the little sort of boutique farmers, but the sort of middle America, ‘I’ve been a farmer, my dad was a farmer, my grandfather was a farmer.’”
A somewhat reluctant subject, Berry is not featured on camera in the “The Seer.” His voice is featured over photos that James Baker Hall took when Berry returned to Henry County. Hall and Berry were close friends. Dunn said the James Baker Hall Archive and Sarah Wylie VanMeter provided the photos to the documentary. Berry’s wife, daughter and son-in-law, and other Henry County residents, are featured in the documentary.
“Jim’s work is so beautiful, and it is really very prominent in the film,” Dunn said.
“The Seer” shows all four seasons in Henry County. Dunn said land and weather, important elements of a farmer’s story, became dynamic characters in the documentary.
She said reviews of “The Seer” have been mostly positive, and the documentary has won awards at a couple of film festivals. She said she might make a few more changes to the film before its official release in 2017, after she hears feedback from the audiences.
“In a way, the work is never done,” Dunn said. “But I do think it feels good to get it into a place where you can share something with an audience.”
The Kentucky Theatre screening of “The Seer” will benefit the Berry Center, a nonprofit organization that uses Berry’s writings to educate communities about sustainable agricultural methods that preserve the land and encourage healthy regional economies. The one-night event is sponsored by Kentucky for Kentucky.
“Wendell is a part of the Kentucky story, and the Kentucky story is a part of him,” said Griffin VanMeter, co-founder of Kentucky For Kentucky. The sponsorship started when VanMeter’s wife, Sarah Wylie VanMeter of the James Baker Hall Archive, sent photos to the documentary makers. VanMeter said he has seen the film a few times, and it “makes you reflect on what’s important.”
VanMeter said Kentucky For Kentucky will sell limited-edition handcrafted Berry mugs that will support the Berry Center. The mugs will be available during the event, online at Kyforky.com and at the Berry Center’s gift shop.
A question-and-answer session will follow the Lexington screening with Dunn and Berry’s daughter Mary, who leads the Berry Center. Dunn hopes to bring awareness of the center through the film.
“I think you can’t make a film about Wendell Berry without the film itself having a kind of practical tool,” Dunn said. “It can’t simply be, ‘Oh, let’s go see a movie. Oh, great, love that movie,’ and then go back to your life, or hate it, doesn’t matter. You know, it really needs to translate into something useful. And that would be my great hope, is that it can translate into something useful for the Berrys and for farmers in Henry County and Kentucky.”