A conversation with Laura Dunn, director of Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

Sean Malin: Wendell’s performance in the film of his own poem, as well as his narration for The Unforeseen, reflect how learned and clever this writer is. He has this mythology, as you and I have discussed before, that has turned him into a mythic figure. Whether this is just my own projection or a full-blown misunderstanding, it feels to me that his refusal to appear in the film physically is a perpetuation of his personal mythology. What is the mask that he wears with you when narrating for your films?

Laura Dunn: He just does not like film, Sean.

SM: Is that really it? He just says, “That’s not for me.”

LD: Yes. There are a couple of things he’s said real clearly to me. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but he believes that the pervasiveness of the screen – film, TV, computer – has contributed to the decline of literacy. He thinks that when you have a picture, your mind doesn’t have to do the work of imagining. When you just have words, your mind has to be activated and you imagine the place, as opposed to just seeing it, which provokes a laziness of the mind. I think he’s got a real point.

SM: Sure, but does that make him scornful of you as a filmmaker? I resent the concept of cinema as a non-literate art. It takes a very learned person to “read” a film completely.

LD: No, he’s not. I agree, of course – it’s your medium and mine – but you are someone who watches films and really analyzes them and really thinks about them. Most people aren’t. Most people are addicted to the medium and want immediate gratification. The pervasiveness of screens is on a continuum with so much of the decline of our culture, in my opinion. People are inside looking at televisions rather than sitting on their front porches visiting with each other.

We’re also talking about someone who is 82, you know? He is not on Twitter, he’s not on social media, he’s not even using a computer. His perspective on the screen is influenced largely by the role that television has played in the changing of community and the backyard. On top of the screen as a problem, Wendell also talked a lot about the problems of idolatry. We live in a time where people want to make idols of individuals. He feels really strongly that he is simply a function of the people that he’s around: his neighbors, and his membership in his community, are primary to his identity and to his values. Living in a little tiny rural community in Kentucky, yet being quite famous, makes it hard for him to just be a neighbor. I think he’s trying to preserve his privacy and his values so that he can simply be another member of his community.

Read the whole conversation at Cinemalin: Film Commentary and Criticism.


A podcast interview with Wendell Berry filmmaker Laura Dunn

Look & See is not a romanticized version of the farmer poet, but an invitation to see the hardship, character, struggle, neighborliness and rooted love that makes up the agrarian lifestyle in Henry County, Kentucky. Laura Dunn and her crew made a generous film. I say generous because Look & See freely gave me space to ask the beautiful question – how then shall I live?

Laura and I talk about Wendell and Tanya Berry’s impact on her life, Wendell’s idea of the union of life and art, marriage as a creative partnership, the unspoken farm crisis and its implications for young farmers today, where she finds hope from the Wendell and Tanya Berry and in her community and why are there so many comedians listed in the end credits of Look & See.

Find and Listen to the interview by Paul Swanson at Contemplify.


Wendell Berry on BBC Radio 3

Ian McMillan celebrates the rural in Reformation poetry and in contemporary work, with a new commission by Luke Wright (inspired by Hans Sachs' 1523 poem 'The Wittenberg Nightingale'). He is also joined by the poets Wendell Berry, the Jamaican Poet Laureate Mervyn Morris and art historian Rosemary Shirley.

Poet and theatre maker Luke Wright's new poetry collection 'The Toll' is published by Penned in the Margins, and he is also touring a show based on the book. Luke's first play 'What I Learned from Johnny Bevan' won The Saboteur award for 'Best Spoken Word Show', and his new play 'Frankie Vah' will have its premiere at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival (26-27 May).

Mervyn Morris is the Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing and West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. His collected poems, 'Peelin Orange', is published by Carcanet.

Rosemary Shirley is a lecturer in art history at the School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University and her work focuses on contemporary rural contexts. Rosemary has curated the exhibition 'Creating the Countryside' which is at Compton Verney Gallery until June 18th.

Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist and farmer who has been awarded The National Humanities Medal and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. 'The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry' is published by Penguin.

Listen to the program (which vanishes 29 days from now) at BBC Radio 3.


Wendell Berry and others on BBC Radio 4

On Start the Week Andrew Marr talks to the American writer, poet and farmer Wendell Berry. In his latest collection of essays, The World-Ending Fire, Berry speaks out against the degradation of the earth andthe violence and greed of unbridled consumerism, while evoking the awe he feels as he walks the land in his native Kentucky.

His challenge to the false call of progress and the American Dream is echoed in the writing of Paul Kingsnorth, whose book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist eschews the grand narrative of a global green movement to focus on what matters - the small plot of land beneath his feet.

Kate Raworth calls herself a renegade economist and, like Berry and Kingsnorth, challenges orthodox thinking, as she points to new ways to understand the global economy which take into consideration human prosperity and ecological sustainability.

Listen to the very good conversation at BBC Radio 4.


Wendell Berry answers some questions

Ragan Sutterfield asked Wendell Berry six questions. Here are two of them.

The idea that our lives are “given” comes up often in your writing. What does it mean to be given? How does it change how we live in the world?

I use the word “given” in reference to this world and our life in it. Two things are implied: first, that we ourselves did not make these things, although by birth we are made responsible for them; and, second, that the world and our lives in it do not come to us by chance.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote: “The way is humility, the goal is truth.” Your own work reflects a similar understanding. How does humility help us recover the truth about the world and ourselves?

If you think, as I do, that the truth is large and our intelligence small, then a certain humility is implied and is even inescapable. As for my own humility, I am not very certain about the extent of it. I know that I had my upbringing from people who would have been ashamed of me if they heard me bragging on myself like a presidential candidate, and I am still in agreement with them. However, I seem to have a good deal of confidence in the rightness of my advocacy for good care of the land and the people. Without that confidence, I don’t think I could have kept it up for as long as I have.

Read the other four questions at American Catholic Blog. The complete interview can also be found in Ragan's very good book, Wendell Berry and the Given Life.


UC Interview with Wendell Berry

Too many of us spend too much time indoors, in front of screens, away from nature. Yet, there’s a consistent sense of wonder about nature in your writing. Can you suggest ways to nurture a stronger sense of Creation care?

A I am sure that the children of my generation benefited from their free roaming — without adult supervision — in the woods and fields. I am sure that we learned a great deal about the natural and practical life of work by playing, and then later working, in the company of other adults at work. 

Now, I seldom see children or young people outdoors. This seems attributable largely to screen addiction. But also, work itself has changed since the time of my childhood. It has become too mechanical, too toxic and too hurried to be congenial. 

You write, “Find your hope . . . on the ground under your feet,” reflecting the idea of acting locally. However, in the face of vast environmental threats, can there be enough local action to bring about the dramatic changes we need?

A I’m not sure. I am only sure that great problems cannot be solved by great solutions. No government, no church, no religious denomination is capable of performing an authentic act of stewardship equivalent in scale to the Normandy invasion or the bombing of Hiroshima. The utterly intractable truth of the matter is that the world is made up of a mosaic of small places, each one unique and, in significant ways, unlike any other. To be capably stewarded or husbanded, each of these places must be known and loved, and therefore possibly known by some particular human with the intelligence, knowledge and skill to use it responsibly. The responsibility pertains to the place itself, and to the humans and other creatures who live on and from it now and forever afterward.

See the interview by Murray MacAdam at UC Observer.


Nick Offerman reflects on Wendell Berry

In about 1995 I was doing a production of Sam Shepherd’s play “Buried Child” at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago; specifically I was hired to understudy Ethan Hawke. And I was also working as a makeup artist on the show, putting old age makeup on the venerated late American actor named James Gammon. Another actor in the show, guy by the name of Leo Burmester, handed me a book of Wendell Berry short stories and said, ‘I think you’re going to get a kick out of these.’ And, boy, it kind of turned my whole life upside-down. I was really moved by Wendell Berry’s creation, in his body of fiction, of a community that reminded me of the great farming family that I grew up in in Illinois. And then, just devouring all of his writing, then his essays and his poetry further cemented him as, in my opinion, the living writer with the most common sense and the most hard-hitting pathos for the human race. He’s my John Lennon or my Gandhi. I think if everybody would read Wendell Berry we’d have a lot less people shooting at each other.

Read more at Los Angeles Times


Award Given to Wendell Berry Interview

On November 8, 2014, Regent alumnus Chad Wriglesworth sat down with prolific author Wendell Berry to discuss work, sustainability, and eternity. The conversation, which took place at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, was first published in the Spring 2015 edition of CRUX.

We Are Still Near the Beginning: A Conversation with Wendell Berry has been awarded First Place in the Interview Article category of the Evangelical Press Association's 2016 Higher Goals Awards. Please join us in congratulating Wendell Berry, Chad Wriglesworth, and the editorial staff of CRUX for this significant achievement.

Read more at Regent College.


An Interview with Laura Dunn about Her Wendell Berry Film

One of the unique things about Berry’s fiction, and perhaps why some people find it less accessible, is that in many ways the books aren’t primarily about human characters but are instead about “a place on earth.” From what I’ve seen, you took a similar approach to Henry County in your movie. How did you go about trying to make Henry County, KY a character? 

You know, there’s this great line that Burley Coulter says where he says “we’re all a part of each other, each one of us is a part of one another, all of us, everything.” It’s this very theological idea, very similar to the words of Paul when he talks about the body of Christ having many different members but we’re all part of one body. That’s the image that was most in my mind as I worked on it and it’s very central to Wendell’s worldview; it’s very theological and ecological. 

The individual is a function of his place and the people around him; you don’t exist but for the others. That’s really profound and important and counter to the way our culture sees individuals now. We have Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and we think every detail we do is important and it’s actually all vanity. Really, who am I without my family, my place, my neighbors? They aren’t just obligation, they are a part of me, they define me. That’s really important to Wendell. He talked to me about that. It’s not about the individual; it’s about the whole community, the membership.

As I approached the film, if you look at that visual image with the man looking away and his back is made up of the landscape, the birds, the clouds, the rivers, the trees, the houses… that’s who Wendell is and his desire to not have it be all about him points us at that very important and significant part of his worldview. To me I still call it a portrait of Wendell Berry because the very way we portray the community is an aspect of something absolutely essential about him, we’re looking at the world through his eyes, not the way the world sees him. 

That being said, I thought it was very important in terms of the natural landscape to film across all four seasons, so you’re going back again and again to the same walk down the hills, the same farmhouse, so I think that also trying to film interview lots of different members of the community they really, I didn’t want one voice, I wanted a collection of different voices. So that’s another way we approached it.

Read the whole interview by Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy.