THE SEER: Doc About Author/Poet/Farmer Wendell Berry is Prophetic Cinema [SXSW 2016]

As embarrassing as it is to admit it, I’m not really familiar with any poets who aren’t named Shel Silverstein. So naturally the writing of Wendell Berry wasn’t something I was aware of until I began to surround myself with the right people. I still remain largely unfamiliar with his work (a huge output of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction) aside from the fact that my last faith community espoused his poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front as something of a vision statement or spinal column, and those words from that single poem have at various times moved and inspired me, confounded me, and brought about unexpected tears.

On that latter point regarding the unexpected tears, filmmaker Laura Dunn’s The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, brings a level of profundity in kind with the work and the life that inspired it. At times filled with wandering and silent images of nature, and at other times narrated by the words and works of Berry, The Seer is broken into chapters which speak directly to the commodification of our agriculture and the way of life that development threatens, as well as to the individual hearts and minds of the viewer. With a subtle-to-swelling score by Kerry Muzzey, and cinematography from Lee Daniel (a frequent collaborator with Richard Linklater), Director Laura Dunn weaves together an affecting cinematic experience that transcends many documentary tropes and eschews preaching or finger wagging. The film uses the written and spoken words of Berry himself to wash over you and Dunn’s structuring and audio/visual choices bolster his words into moments of meaning and conviction just digestible enough to stick with you without overwhelming you. Visual montage layered over words so inspired as to be considered brilliant. It’s little surprise then, that filmmaking luminaries like Terrence Malick and Robert Redford (not to mention Nick Offerman) lent their names, and presumably funds, to the project in various producer roles.

Among the topics covered by the film are the mechanization and industrialization of agriculture and the effect that has had on farming families, the agreed upon societal dismissal of the midwest and rural lands as “the middle of nowhere”, and the small but hopeful ways we can begin to piece back together our broken society. They’re urgent topics, made only more urgent since the 1970s when Berry wrote perhaps some of his most influential books. But as relevant as the film may be, The Seer is an experiential film. A review is, in a way, superfluous, as the film is more about the emotional experience of hearing and processing what Berry’s words may speak to each individual viewer and how the music and imagery coalesce to impact and convict each audience member.

While Berry has meant much more to people around me, good friends whose beliefs and values I choose to surround myself with in order to glean from them, it took seeing this film to feel a kind of personal thankfulness for Berry’s work; for his mind, and for his words. To be honest, it took a film being made about a writer who himself will never even watch the film because he disavows “screens” and doesn’t use computers, televisions, or smart phones, to give me a personal reference point and connection to the man. Translating Berry into “my” medium allowed me a chance to experience this prophet in a way I know and understand. I imagine The Seer will have a similar impact on many viewers, introducing them to Wendell Berry on their terms so that we can open up our ears to his very different rhythm and philosophy.

I walked out of The Seer feeling an overwhelming conviction that Berry’s radical ideas are true and right. I’ll continue wrestling with how to apply his concepts to my decidedly urban and technology-riddled life, and I’m not entirely sure where to begin. But as Berry points out, the world is broken apart and putting all the pieces back together is an impossibility. But if you can find, amidst the rubble, two pieces that do seem to fit together, and stick them back together, that’s a powerful place to begin.

And I’m Out.

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the author

Ed changed careers and moved halfway across the country from Maryland to Austin with his amazingly understanding wife just to figure out how to earn a living watching movies. He once heard it said that NY/LA are where you go to MAKE movies, but Austin is where you go to WATCH movies. And that is the truth. But seriously, if anyone knows how to make a living watching movies, please let him know. Twitter: @Ed_Travis