Wendell Berry’s children relate how their parents were frequently reminding them to “Look and see; see what is around you…see the beauty…see what is wrong…what is ugly.” Then think about it, consider what needs to be done, work hard, establish priorities, and work together with others to achieve something of value. Berry has a fine reputation for his poems, novels, and essays, but he has always been a farmer, and one active in protesting war and the industrialization of agriculture. He is the author of a book, The unsettling of American Culture and Agriculture. This documentary by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell is a gentle reminder of his admonitions to be mindful of the richness of the earth and the need to take care of it for ourselves and for future generations.
Berry narrates much of the dialog with the southern accent of an intelligent Kentucky farmer discoursing about the history of farming in America, the effects of industrialization not just on farms, but on small businesses and towns across the country as well. Its effects extend to the larger culture in the erosion of values like independence, thrift, stewardship, private property, family, and neighborliness. Replacing it has been technology-based forces whose only standard is profit. Along the way, he began to realize that rather than spending time in the fields, which he loved, his life was taken up by management and bookkeeping. A vicious cycle of increasing acreage, equipment, labor and debt and, paradoxically, steadily declining profits put him in crisis mode. He did see his challenge as adapting to change, rather than reverting to old ways.
Berry’s creativity helped him out of the mire, and that was to turn to organic farming and the local food movement, which he sees as of benefit to the land and to society in general.
The documentary is pleasantly entertaining and visually interesting (some black and white, some color photography and drawings), with fine cinematography (Lee Daniel), and lyrical music (Kerry Muzzy). Along with others, Robert Redford, Terrence Malick, and Nick Offerman were the producers, very likely enhancing the quality of the production.
This is a quiet film, something I appreciated, but some may think it a bit too low-key. Its format and pace allow the viewer to ponder the statements made, and consider their value. I think it would have benefited from including an alternate view—if it’s valid—that the industrialization of agriculture, for all its negative effects, may feed so many more people, it might have value from that standpoint. Laura Dunn is a young filmmaker whose early works should stand her in good stead for future endeavors.
A film about how industrialization of agriculture has affected American culture negatively.