Laura Dunn on ‘Look & See‘ and the Challenge of Documenting Wendell Berry


The filmmaker also discusses the involvement of producers Terrence Malick and Nick Offerman, the benefit of constraints and the new relevance of her work in the era of Trump.

Very few documentary filmmakers have burst onto the scene as extraordinarily as Laura Dunn. Her first theatrically released feature, 2007’s The Unforeseen, not only boasted Robert Redford and Terrence Malick as executive producers but also garnered rhapsodic reviews, an Independent Spirit Award and television distribution on both PBS and the Sundance Channel.

As astonishing a debut as it was, though, the film, which looks at the environmental consequences of real estate development in her hometown of Austin, TX, was the result of Dunn’s many years honing her craft as a documentarian with a special touch for country life and working people. Green, her short about environmental racism, was the recipient of a 2001 Student Academy Award, and Become the Sky, “an ecological map of power in Texas,” was nominated for the same honor in 2002. It was this dedicated focus on rural communities that helped her land the most elusive of documentary subjects: writer, farmer, and National Humanities Medal recipient Wendell Berry.

Dunn’s new film, Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, after premiering in a previous incarnation and under a different title (The Seer) at SXSW last year. Redford and Malick returned as executive producers, with avowed Berry super-fan Nick Offerman also on board as a co-producer (you may have seen the Parks and Recreation star promoting the film last summer on the TODAY show.)

Look & See’s U.S. theatrical premiere took place at New York’s IFC Center on June 30th, and it is currently screening around the country — all future showtimes can be found at the production’s official website. The film is also newly available on Netflix U.S. as well.

Dunn and I spoke by phone at the beginning of the summer and discussed Look & See, Berry, her producers and the singular approach that she takes in documenting vital subject matter.

Nonfics: I’m struck by the difficulty that Mr. Berry presents as a documentary subject. When Bill Moyers interviewed him on PBS a few years ago, he remarked that their conversation only came after “considerable persuasion.” I know Mr. Berry wouldn’t go on camera for you and says in one of your audio interviews that he categorically “doesn’t participate in films.” I suppose none of this came as a surprise since you were so familiar with him and his ideas. But can you talk a little about how it was to work within the constraints he set?

Laura Dunn: “Constraints” is the operative word, I think. I always say, though: as a documentary filmmaker, constraints are your friends. Constraints are good things because they’re where the creative opportunities are. That’s how I see it. It’s so different from being a narrative filmmaker, where you’re in complete control from the beginning — or, at least, you think you are. You’re really orchestrating something as a narrative filmmaker.

But for me as a documentary filmmaker, I feel like I’m there to absorb and to learn and to be changed and transformed by what I’m seeing and hearing. So it’s a different approach, and it’s a different ethic, and constraints are all around. You may be shooting one day and hoping for snow but it’s 80 degrees and sunny, and so now that’s part of your story.

For me, the fact that he did not want to go on camera — and I knew that right from the outset — represented significant information about him. It also presented a really interesting creative opportunity. In terms of making a portrait of someone whom I greatly respect, it was an interesting challenge. The same for the fact that he does not regard film as a viable artistic medium.

My relationship with Wendell Berry is definitely teacher to student, and so this was like when any really great teacher gives you a challenge. “Let’s give her this and see what she can do with it.” That’s how I thought about the constraints. I also think that his whole worldview is so counter-cultural, and that was profoundly inspiring to me. The mainstream culture is going at a faster and faster pace, everything is visual, there’s a decline of literacy. It’s not a world that makes much sense to me, and I don’t feel very at home in it.

Wendell Berry really paints this picture for us of an alternative, another world where screens and imagery are not present at all. What does that do to your mind’s eye, to how you see the world around you? So I was trying, in the way I approached this film, to convey a lot of that — literally, poetically, metaphorically, and abstractly. Sometimes those ideas were just there in the back of my mind as I chose images and subjects.

You first read Mr. Berry in high school, but it was Terrence Malick who encouraged you to touch base with him when you were working on The Unforeseen. Mr. Berry ended up playing a small but important role in that film, reciting one of his poems, and you two have since stayed in touch. Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of your relationship with him and his work — from first reading him in high school to now knowing him and documenting him?

I’d always loved his work since high school, mostly the nonfiction. My mom is a geneticist, and I’d grown up around agriculture and agricultural questions. So his work, especially the essays, really spoke to me. But it was while I was working on The Unforeseen that Terry said, “You really need some voices that are outside the local realm to set the context and make it a bigger story.” He gave me a couple of writers to look at, and one of them was Wendell Berry. I found a poem of his that really resonated, and wrote a letter introducing myself and telling him about the project, asking if I could come and meet him, and ideally record him reading the poem. He said yes, and that was when I first met him, in 2004.

At that time, I didn’t really have an idea of wanting to make a film about Wendell. But when I toured The Unforeseen, I was really surprised at how few people seemed to know about his work — especially audiences that I assumed would. The San Francisco Film Festival, for example, has a lot of people who are into food and progressive issues and farming and environmentalism, and none of them knew who Wendell Berry was. Like we say in the film, either people know about him and he’s so incredibly important to them, or they don’t know him at all. So I just thought, “I’d like to do something to draw more attention to his work.” That’s when our letter writing started.

Look &See came out of this letter writing back and forth with Wendell, and several visits. I’d been proposing the idea of the film in different variations. And he was sort of, “Yes…no…yes…no…yes…no…” I didn’t want to impose on him, and it was [his wife Tanya Berry] who invited me and said, “I want you to do this.” I think they’ve had a lot of people approach them over the years about doing a film, and they’ve always said no. My in was Tanya, who chose me — and I’m really thankful for that.

She’s such a wonderful presence in the film — a remarkable documentary character, I think.

I agree! I joke with people that the film should really be titled Bait and Switch: A Portrait of Tanya Berry. I set out to make a film about this writer who has been so important to me personally, and while I learned a lot from him, I think I learned the most from Tanya in the course of making the film. She really guided me. She would give me names of people to call, and say, “You should look at this.”

From the beginning, I said to Wendell, “Look, I know you don’t want to be filmed. I’m not going to ask you to be filmed. I’m not going to try and trick you or convince you. I respect your position on this. So I’m going to make a movie about how you see the world, rather than how the world sees you. I’m going to let you guide me and tell me what’s important and what to look and see.” Tanya very much supported me in that and gave me a lot of ideas. In painting a picture of Wendell’s world, the place and the people around him, Tanya was immensely helpful in identifying people who are special to Wendell, who represent and reflect their values and what they care about.

Their daughter Mary also makes quite an impression in the film.

She’s really on a mission right now. Mary was a farmer for a long time, and still farms with her husband, but has also started the Berry Center, which supports sustainable agriculture. She is traveling around the country and raising money through federal grants with the goal of building more sustainable economies for those working small and middle-sized farms. So she’s really on a quest to put the ideas that Wendell writes about so eloquently into action in her community and at large. She’s the political voice of the issues.

Look & See is structured into several “chapters,” but it’s not at all rigid: the film has such an open and contemplative quality. We can certainly see it in Lee Daniel’s cinematography, which is remarkably evocative. It’s also in your editing, in the way pieces of interviews and recordings are used throughout the film. Would you say something about how you as a filmmaker “look and see?”

I don’t set out with a script or with much more than questions on my mind. To some people that’s daunting — especially when you’re trying to convince funders to support your work. But that’s why I love documentary film: there’s so much in the messiness and the discovery and the mistakes. It reflects all the beauty and imperfections of real life. I’m not interested in just reportage.

I’ll tell you something I don’t usually talk about in interviews, but it relates kind of interestingly: when I was in high school, I was very artistically inclined and always wanted to make art. If there was an assignment to write a paper, I was always trying to convince the teacher to let me write a play , things like that. When I was a little girl, though, I wanted to be Dan Rather — I was always driven by this idea of finding the story and journalism as a witness. So I think there’s a hybrid quality to my work. On the one hand, I’m always seeking out information and trying to better understand the world. On the other, I want to render it in a way that has emotional truth to it.

One of my biggest influences is the writer Tim O’Brien. He writes about Vietnam and was a “tunnel-rat” during the war. He came back and wrote about his experiences in the novel The Things They Carried. It’s a really, really powerful book. I got to meet him when I was in high school, and he introduced me to this concept that has stayed with me all these years: “Sometimes to get at the truth, you have to write fiction.” I just think that’s such a profound idea; if you’re chasing after the truth, what form does it come in? To me, in documentary film, you’re working with nonfiction material, you’re trying to render reality as you see and experience it, but that doesn’t always necessarily come across if you’re just reporting facts and telling a story very literally. But truth has a lot of different dimensions to it, and there is an emotional quality to it.

So I’m always kind of chasing after something that’s in my mind’s eye, or something I feel, and, I’m trying to render it in a way that’s authentic the best that I can. Sometimes you don’t know if it’s even going to work. For instance, with this film I’m trying to make a portrait of a man who doesn’t want to be on camera and trying to get across to the audience that there’s this other world that we have to look and see and understand and let it change us.

I’m also trying to put the audience in that world, not literally tell them about it, because I don’t think one can experience something if they’re just told to experience it. That’s what I’m going for here, and there’s always the question, “Will this actually work, or not?”

By way of answering that question: what did Mr. Berry think of the film? Has he seen it yet?

He saw a 20-minute version of the film very early on. I was a little worried that once he saw that he was going to shut the whole thing down, but apparently — I don’t know this from him, but from Mary — it really moved him emotionally. But he also wondered, “Is the argument clear? Could it be clearer?” Those were his two responses, and for me that was good feedback.

To my knowledge, he hasn’t yet seen the full film. The indication is that he will eventually. He doesn’t have a TV, he’s not going to go to a movie theater — God forbid he ever set foot in a movie theater — but we’ve provided him with the means to see it, so I hope he will see it. Tanya and Mary and Steve Smith, the farmer in the film, they’ve all seen it many times now. But Wendell did tell me how much he thought the 20-minute version captures something, and how important that is, and so that’s good enough for me.

Look & See was previously released in a different incarnation as The Seer. But after some initial festival screenings, you decided to go back and work on the film some more. This is not uncommon in documentary filmmaking, but it’s not something that really gets discussed a lot. What can you tell us about this process for you? What changes did the film go through?

I know when I talk to Terry about his work, he doesn’t really think of it as finished. Based on things he’s told me, I assume that if he were to sit down and watch Days of Heaven he’d probably still be editing it in his mind. In some ways the work is never done, right? So when do you say it’s done for practical purposes? With Look & See in particular, I was tired, honestly. I’d just had a new baby, I’d been working on it for years, I felt like we were done. Then SXSW wanted to screen it — it’s in our home town — and I was just ready to let it go and put it out there. So we did. We premiered, it did well, it even won a jury prize for visual design, which is really cool.

There was good, healthy interest in the film, even though I wasn’t really concerned about formal distribution; we’re sort of more interested in the grassroots response because that reflects Wendell. In fact, there was a great groundswell interest in the film, and we got hundreds of screening requests from different communities, and I was pumped to move forward with the film in that way. We also took it to Nashville, Montclair, Hot Docs and other festivals that reached out to us and wanted to screen it.

Then, over the summer, we did some test screenings in Kentucky and realized we really wanted to do some things differently after getting a little distance from the film. Wendell also did not like the title and indicated that. He felt that it gave him too much credit and suggested that he was some kind of prophet. There was other feedback too. Tanya felt that the ending was too dismal and hoped for something more optimistic and hopeful.

Then there were things that were pointed out that we had to correct. So while we were responding to those, we’d see other things. “You know we could tighten this here, fix that there…” So we thought, “Well, let’s just quiet this for a few months, re-tweak it, then relaunch it.” In that window, interestingly enough, Sundance asked to screen it, which was a surprise and exciting. The election also happened, which changed the context. There was suddenly all this interest in rural America. “What did we miss? What did we not see?” That influenced some of the later changes as well.

What do you think the film illuminates in this regard?

You know, I don’t live in New York or Los Angeles. I live in Austin. So it’s Texas, but it’s also the birthplace of Whole Foods, for example. It’s increasingly urban, and there’s just such a disconnect. It’s very clear. You can see the disconnect between the urban and the rural in our political landscape. I mean, just look at the election map — what’s blue and what’s red. It’s just astonishing. How surprised all the urbanites were that there was all this angst expressed. A lot of people don’t necessarily love Donald Trump but just didn’t feel like they had a voice in the system.

I also went to Yale and have been around a lot of these “elites,” but my family is all from southern Mississippi and my heart is definitely in southern, rural places. All of my work, I think, is interested in giving voice to rural, southern people. I remember being at Yale and all the stereotypes about rural people. “They’re all rednecks, they’re all racists, they’re all stupid…” As Wendell says, it’s the last acceptable caricature.

What I hope the film shows is that rural places are astonishingly beautiful, the people are full of knowledge and insight, there’s complexity and struggle — real economic struggle. A lot of people are left out in the context of our global economy, big time. But if all the film did was sensitize you so that you had a more open mind the next time you drive through a little rural town, that would be great. That disconnect between the Whole Foods consumer and the rural producer is really huge, and I don’t know anybody better than Wendell Berry to articulate what’s at stake there. At a Q&A at one of the screenings, Mary said, “You have this demand for organic, local produce going up, while the number of small family farmers who are able to actually produce is going down.” So, again, you have a clear disconnect there. How do you give voice to the farmers and sensitize people to what’s really going on in rural places?

One of the most moving quotes Mr. Berry reads in the film is, “When we make our art, we are also making our lives and I’m sure that the reverse is equally true.” In addition to being an accomplished filmmaker, you’re married with six children. Can you say something about this quote and its meaning in your life?

You know, I used to be very career-focused, and then I met my husband and we started having children. All of sudden we have six. So I’m really engaged as a mom, at least I try to be. There are times when my work can feel at odds with the rest of my life. Art isn’t something you can really phone in — you don’t really dial in and dial out. It’s hard to find sustained quiet time to reflect and make art when you have six little boys running around. So most of Look & See’s editing was done in the middle of the night while they slept, for example.

There’s a tension there that’s difficult, but Wendell’s words there are really an inspiration to me. That tension is a part of my art and my life — they go together. It doesn’t have to be this worrying dichotomy. They really are feeding one another as opposed to tearing you apart. That’s a mindset, a way you can choose to see it.

It definitely affects your art: I would have made a very different film had I not been chasing after six little boys. It probably would have been much more cinéma vérité, chronicling the farmers for a year and all of that. It ends up becoming more impressionistic and poetic simply because there were constraints on my time and lots of emotions experienced during the course of it and these bigger questions framing it. There’s trade-offs, but that’s the way to carve out meaning in your own life.

Lastly, I understand you and co-producer Nick Offerman may be working on another project together. Can you tell us anything about that?

Nick’s awesome — just wonderful. So helpful, deep in his thinking, always bringing levity. He’s been so fiercely committed to this film: he grew up on a farm in Minooka, IL, and his family is still there. So he’s tried and true. He’s also gotten to be good friends with the Berrys through the course of working on this project, which is lovely.

Nick and I are sort of talking about ideas, reading books together, and he’s given me some books to read. So it’s in the very early stages. He’s a woodworker and he’s very passionate about wood and trees, and of course that’s a big theme in Wendell’s work, as well. There’s interest in working together on something about forestry. So we’re reading a lot right now.

There’s this really neat book called American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation by Eric Rutkow, which is this really academic book but it’s awesome. It’s this sort of history of the United States as seen through our forests, and there’s a lot there. We’re working through other good titles too, and exploring ideas.

I definitely see The Unforeseen and Look & See as siblings, and I think there may be a third part coming.