Partway through the documentary “The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” Mary Berry, daughter of the esteemed Kentucky writer and activist, says that places like Henry County, Kentucky are often flippantly called “nowhere.”
“Or the sticks,” she says. “And there are other names for places like this and names for the people who live in them.”
She says that’s why it was key that when making the film, director Laura Dunn understood how important the culture of rural Kentucky is and detailed how it is falling apart. This mirrors what Wendell Berry has written for decades — honing specifically in on the topics of farming, faith and fellowship, and in this narrative how the three are intrinsically tied.
“The Seer” — produced by Robert Redford, Terrence Malick, Jef Sewell, and Nick Offerman — was filmed across four seasons in the farming cycle. The film blends observational scenes of farming life and interviews with farmers and community members with evocative, carefully framed shots of the surrounding landscape.
But it all centers on the life of Wendell Berry.
In 1965, Berry returned to his home in Henry County, where he bought a small farm house and began a life of farming, writing and teaching.
His deep relationship with the land and his community has made him an outspoken advocate for the agrarian virtues of land stewardship and sustainable farming practices. This puts him in opposition to capital-intensive models of industrial agriculture characterized by machine labor, chemical fertilizers and soil erosion — practices that are shown in Berry’s work as detrimental to farming communities.
This idea, Mary Berry says, came through loud and clear in “The Seer.”
“We need the agrarian culture back if we are going to satisfy the demand for well-raised, sustainably-raised, delicious food that is going up in Louisville,” she says. “Unfortunately the demand going up in Louisville has meant the rural culture coming down out here. If food is a cultural product then we’ve got ourselves a problem, so (Dunn) took a serious look at that and I think it is very helpful, actually.”
Something that underscores Berry’s writings is his sense of faith and how that inspires his views on caring for the earth.
Sarah Reed Harris is the managing director at the Center for Interfaith Relations. The organization actively promoted the film and Harris has personally seen “The Seer” twice.
“I think it is an example being mindful of the gifts of creation, your stewardship of creation, and the harm that is caused when you are not mindful,” Harris says. “And I think that would be held up across the board of religious faith leaders.”
She also says that by focusing on the culture of farmers in Henry County — their shared hopes and struggles — an inherent sense of community comes to the forefront in the film.
And for some viewers of the film, it inspired a desire for fellowship with others.
Mick Jeffries attended the Lexington screening of “The Seer” Thursday night.
“The movie amplified a sense of community in a way that I think the filmmakers absolutely intended it to and in a way that I believe Wendell and his family would have wished for it to,” Jeffries says. “I could barely leave the theater because I was part of a lingering crowd that wanted to stand around and continue talking about it.”
“The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” will play at the Speed Cinema through July 31. More information is available here.