A documentary can be the trickiest of visual things to pull-off. It can be especially tricky if your subject is niche, something that perhaps not everyone is familiar with.
Going into Look & See I had never heard of Wendell Berry. I was tempted to look him up but decided against it. Arguing that, as a documentary titled ‘a portrait of’, surely it will tell me all I need.
I mention this as the title of director Laura Dunn’s (Green, The Unforseen) film is a little misleading. After finishing the documentary, I’m not convinced I’m much the wiser about Wendell Berry, but that’s not the whole story.
What Dunn has created is a beautiful ode to the land we live on, the land we live off, the land we abuse and take for granted, the land we’re losing.
She infuses Berry’s poems into the narrative along with photos from his friend James Baker Hall in a way that is nothing short of beautiful (I’ll probably be using that word a lot).
The directing and editing (both by Dunn) is made immeasurably easier by the breathtaking cinematography of Lee Daniel (cinematographer on Boyhood amongst many others).
This is a beautiful piece of film, just an absolute joy and pleasure to watch, a visual feast for the eyes with Berry’s dulcet tones adding to the lazy, hazy feel.
There is, however, a problem with this. It takes a short-while but eventually we get into it what Look & See is really about: farming in rural America. Although you could transplant it to the UK just as easily.
It’s about how big business and the drive for efficiency means that, whilst farmers prices to produce goods have risen by thousands of percent, the price we pay has hardly changed.
There’s a startling graph part-way through that shows the number of farms and the average farm size in the US from 1950 – 2000. It makes for very grim reading.
In a nutshell, farm numbers have halved whilst the number of acres each farmer is working has more than doubled. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how unsustainable that is.
However, the beauty of the documentary, the mellifluous tone from Berry, makes it hard to get worked up about these shocking statistics and the plight of the farmers interviewed.
I also found it a little hard to get upset, or want to back farmers whose main crop is tobacco. It just didn’t sit well with me.
I mean, we bemoan the farmers in places like Columbia for growing drugs, whilst they say they do it because it’s what pays the best. And here we have US farmers proving their point with a drug that’s killed far more people globally.
According to the World Health Organisation “Tobacco kills more than AIDS, legal drugs, illegal drugs, road accidents, murder, and suicide combined.”
That aside though, the message is relevant and is clear. We are punishing the very people who provide for us. In the coming decades, we will be fighting over water and food and giving away land because we’ll have farmed it too much.
Look & See opens in NY at the IFC Center on June 30, 2017