If you don’t know who Wendell Berry is, and it’s entirely possible you don’t, please pause now and google (or click here) and read “The Peace of Wild Things”, my favorite of his poems. I hope it at least encourages you to seek out more by Berry, whose ideas from the 1970s about farming and local living and sustainability are finally in vogue. The connection that Berry brings to THE SEER: A PORTRAIT OF WENDELL BERRY, directed by Laura Dunn, is that of a cornerstone – something that supports the greater story.
The opening sequence of a very southern (likely Kentuckian) voice narrating Berry’s writing while hyperbolic images of what’s being said flash on the screen – “a forest reduced to stumps” shows an image of a tall tree being stripped of its branches at lightening speed by a machine in front of a monoculture of trees behind. The film starts by looking at Berry’s life, why he became the writer he is – after starting in several other fields, and ultimately returning to his roots in Kentucky and writing about his hometown.
From this cornerstone, including interviews with Berry’s daughter Mary, we get to know the farming life in rural Kentucky in the 1970s and 80s. The life of taking care of the land and trying to earn a living while raising a family was not easy, according to his wife Tanya, but it was manageable. The story broadens to encompass farmers today near Port Royal, Kentucky, the subject of many of Berry’s writings. We see the last farmer on a road that has seen all the others given up, or forced to change to a new kind of life. They talk about the change in farming, and why they prefer to do things on a smaller scale.
There’s a quote that represents this point of view well, when a farmer says, “I keep the weeds out of my field for the same reason I wash my face”. This took me a minute, but he’s saying a lot with that – farming is a part of who he does and he keeps up the rituals of farming because of that, it’s the way you do things.
The film isn’t preachy, it’s showing you that there are people willing to do what is manageable, and what is best for the land and their families. They describe the desire for farming coming from the passion of successive generations. There are a lot of threats to this way of life, some unavoidable without a change in our culture. But if anyone can persuade us, Wendell Berry might be the one. THE SEER is a thoughtful documentary, told with the same directness as Berry’s writing, with enough hope that you want to see and know and be more.
THE SEER plays at Hot Docs 2016 next Wednesday May 4th – 9:15pm at The Lightbox. It plays again at Scotiabank Theatre on Thursday May 5th – 3:45pm, and finally at The Lightbox on Sunday May 8th – 8:45pm (official website)