Since she began her career, Laura Dunn has shown a passionate interest in using documentary to explore environmental issues, but the universal stories of those people directly affected. Her first film, Green, examined the high cancer rate of residences living along the Mississippi River. The Unforeseen examined the effects human interference has had on Austin’s Barton Springs.
Her new film, Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry is an examination of the life and work of writer Wendell Berry (one of the most prolific voices of rural America), but like her other films dives deeper into how agriculture and the environment directly impact the lives and communities surrounding them.
Filmed over three years in Berry’s hometown (where he was born, raised, and still resides), Dunn captures the interior life of Henry County, Kentucky through Berry’s own words and the lives of the residents who live alongside him.
Lesley Coffin: What first introduced you to Wendell’s writings?
Laura Dunn: I think I first read him in high school. I was raised by a single mother who was a botanist and environmentalist, and she had been raised by a long line of people passionate about plant life and agriculture. So I was introduced to his work early on. And over the years I’d read his work. But it was while working on my documentary The Unforseen, which came out in 2007, which was about water issues in Austin, Texas. And Terrence Malick had been my guide on that project, and he suggested I find some voices who could contextualize this local story into something more universal. And he suggested a few authors that I should look at, which included Wendell. So that’s when I really revisited his work again. So it’s really been a long process.
Lesley Coffin: After reading that work as a documentarian, what type of research and travel did you undertake to understand the places he’d been writing about?
Laura Dunn: When I decided to make a documentary about him, or first seriously considered it, I spent the first six months just reading everything he’d written that I could find. I’d read most of nonfiction and some of his poetry, but I really had to dig into all his work. I read his stories, his books, and any non-fiction I hadn’t read yet. And that’s when I started to think about what’s the essence of his work came down to, and it was this place Henry County. He has a rootedness to the land, the people, the community that live there. So to do a portrait of this man, you really had to do a portrait of this place. And early on he said, “I’m nothing without the people and the place in which I live.” So right away, I felt any portrait of this man had to reflect that place.
So we started spending time in Henry County and did a short scouting shoot in the summer of 2012, and we quickly fell in love with the place as well. And that’s when we decided that we needed to spend the time and film all four seasons. We’d go in the fall to film, edit, raise some money, and then go back in the spring. And we did that for about three years. So the research started just by reading, and then I did ground research while filming.
Lesley Coffin: How involved was Wendell?
Laura Dunn: He’s interviewed, just not on camera. We did a series of audio interviews but he’s uncomfortable with the camera. He doesn’t regard film as a very viable medium, so I told him early on that I’d respect that and wouldn’t put him on camera. But he was very comfortable doing audio interviews, so we did four interview sessions sitting in his living, and those were probably about two hours each. And I took all those and a selection of still photographs his best friend James Baker Hall had taken over the years.
So that provided the film with Wendell’s essence, without forcing him to sit in front of a camera. And early on we’d written some letters. But the major force behind the scenes was his wife Tonya. She gave me lists of the people I should talk to and called them to ask them to talk to me. She was really involved. Wendell did watch an early, 20 minute cut of the film and said that it was emotionally moving, but is your argument clear enough, but he didn’t watch multiple cuts of the film. I mostly worked with his wife and daughter on that stuff during production.
Lesley Coffin: Did you take those comments he made and adjust how you were approaching the production?
Laura Dunn: Absolutely. I took those comments very seriously. It’s hard because I don’t use any scripts, and lean towards an impressionistic filmmaking style, so hearing that feedback was very important. After that we found audio of his debates with Earl Butz from the 1970s, and that’s provide a way to draw out the arguments clearly. Hearing them arguing about these agricultural issues and making their points prevents it from becoming a purely nostalgic film. That’s probably where the film was heading when I showed him that early 20 minute cut.
Lesley Coffin: I want to go back to what you mentioned earlier, that your mother was a botanist and environmentalist. What did she study?
Laura Dunn: My mother was a genetic-botanist, searching for the origins of corn. And she was a single mom, so I moved around with her to different post-doctoral programs. So I was very familiar with university botany and agricultural departments growing up. She spent her career looking for organic strands of corn and researching the history of maize, so I grew up around all that.
Lesley Coffin: What sparked your interest in using film to extend those interests, and then using it as a way to look at the economic, socio-political aspects of agricultural communities? Because the film is a portrait of Wendell, but also of this community that depend on a farming economy?
Laura Dunn: First, thank you for that question, because I don’t think I’ve been asked that before. I did my undergrad at Yale back in the 90s, but am a kid from the South. And I was a de facto member of the labor unions because I washed dishes in the dining hall. And when a labor strike broke out, I was struck by the disparity in that community, where there was a concentration of some of the wealthiest people in the country, and some of the poorest. And I felt like I was straddling both those worlds, but the two worlds never talked to each other. I grew up very interested in the economy and history, my grandfather was a southern historian. But while at Yale, a friend of mine had a camera, and I started filming both worlds. I’d film the labor strikes and interview the professors and students. And I intercut those two to make a film about that economic disparity, called The Subsect of the Yale Education.
So that was my beginning, my need to make sense when I felt like I was in a very disorienting place. And I found myself drawn to documentary film because it’s so interdisciplinary. To document something happening, you have to look at everything, not just one field of study. That’s why I ended up being an American Studies major, and I think that’s existed in all my films. As for my draw to the many facets of agriculture in this film, being a film about Wendell it had to be about the things he cares about. It’s about how Wendell sees the world, not how the world sees him. He’s so uncomfortable with any kind of idolatry, but we could make a film about his world view. And his writing also happens to be very interdisciplinary. His main interests may be agriculture and farming, but he’ll take on everything. He writes about the theological, the economic, the politics. So the film needed to reflect that.
Lesley Coffin: An independent film like this usually trickles out to audiences slowly, through festivals and then limited release. Having traveled with it to different parts of the country, have you noticed different reactions from rural and urban audiences?
Laura Dunn: Oh yeah. And since this most recent political election, that divide has been so deeply felt and illuminated. It’s frightening the consequences of having a divide like that in our country. We’ve seen an increasingly urban population. I heard a statistic that less than one percent of the population in the US are farmers. But in a lot of rural areas that used to have strong farming communities, there’s just no economy. We’ve seen some beautiful places where people are reinvesting, but this shift towards an urban worldview and the disconnection felt by rural Americans is astonishing.
Wendell talks about that a lot, he says rural people are treated like they’re in third world. They’re the last acceptable stereotype. I know one really concrete example. I live in Austin which is the headquarters of Whole Foods. And there are a lot of well-to-do, well-meaning people shopping at Whole Foods. But they have no idea of the struggles of the people growing the local produce they’re consuming. You go to the farmers market and think how great it is that there’s this demand for organic food, farmers must be doing great. But as Wendell Berry says, as the demand for local/organic food has risen, the number of farmers have gone down. So there still is this huge disconnect, even though people think they’re educated and supporting local agriculture, but you have to look deeper at the economic structure and see how we can really support and sustain local farmers.
© Lesley Coffin (7/5/17) FF2 Media
Read FF2 Media's full review of Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.
Photos: Behind the scenes & still from Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry
Photo Credit: Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry (Two Birds Film/Cinematographer Lee Daniel)