Equal parts hagiographic biography and heartland celebration, “The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” should be of interest to passionate devotees of the film’s subject — an award-winning poet, essayist, novelist and farmer noted for his environmental activism — and anyone concerned about the challenges and opportunities facing family farmers in an age of industrial agriculture. Trouble is, director Laura Dunn’s well-meaning but meandering documentary isn’t likely to generate much interest beyond those target audiences, despite its recent accumulation of accolades on the festival circuit.
Dunn’s latest effort can be viewed as a companion piece to her previous feature, “The Unforeseen” (2007), an affectingly melancholy contemplation of the clashes between developers and environmentalists in and around Austin, Texas. From that film, which skillfully employed Berry’s poem “Santa Clara Valley” as running commentary, Dunn has progressed to making Berry the “star” of an ambitious documentary that attempts to be both an up-close study of the celebrated writer — whose 1977 book “The Unsettling of America” weighed the cultural and spiritual attributes of farming against the disruptive aspects of massive agribusiness — and a group portrait of farmers in and around Henry Country, Ken., where Berry resides.
Since Berry declined to be interviewed on camera, Dunn had to rely on vintage clips and photos, along with recorded interviews and poetry readings, to make his presence fully felt. (Think of how the makers of “The Kid Stays in the Picture” used that audiobook recording by Robert Evans, or what Maximilian Schell did in “Marlene” with audio commentary by a camera-shy Marlene Dietrich, and you’ll have some idea of what to expect.) Onscreen interviews with others — including Tanya Berry, the writer’s wife, and Mary Berry, his adult daughter — round out the uncritically admiring depiction of an artist who thrives by remaining rooted in rural Kentucky, and has become a champion for his neighbors (and, by extension, all family farmers) as they struggle to maintain their own ties to the land.
Dunn obviously shares Berry’s concern and sympathy for his fellow farmers, who cling to traditional values even as the costs of planting, raising and harvesting their crops relentlessly accelerate. Unfortunately, the filmmaker is hard-pressed to find a new perspective for this all-too-familiar story. As a result, long stretches of “The Seer” come across as echoes of those sincere but repetitive save-the-farm documentaries that once were a staple of the Sundance Film Festival — an impression reinforced by the prominent billing of Robert Redford as executive producer (along with Terrence Malick).
Another problem: The film’s lyrical representation of tobacco farming is bound to rankle some otherwise simpatico viewers who know just how dangerous this harvest really is.
“The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” contains some interesting testimonials from Kentucky farmers, most notably Steve Smith, who admits he was ready to abandon his lifework until he switched to organic farming. And Lee Daniel’s exquisite cinematography cries out to be savored on a big screen; an opening montage of urban chaos, accompanied by Berry’s reading of his visionary poem “A Timbered Choir,” is as powerful as any similar sequence in Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyannisqatsi.” More often, however, the documentary is too tepid to generate anything like excitement or outrage, and elicits admiration more for its intentions than for its execution.