Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry


America the beautiful as we imagine it is.

(2016) Documentary (Two Birds) Wendell Berry (voice), Earl Butz, Steve Smith, Tanya Berry, Curtis Combs, Andy Zaring, John Berry Jr., Michael Douglas, Dale Roberts, Juan Javier Reyes, John Logan Brent, Mary Berry, Mark Roberts, Phoebe Wagoner, Arwen Donahue. Directed by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell

 

Farming is a necessary profession; after all, we all need to eat. The work of farming isn’t easy; it requires a lot of elbow grease and a lot of dedication. The economics of farming are almost as daunting as the physical labor involved.

Wendell Berry is a poet and essayist who comes from a long line of farmers in Henry County, Virginia. He left home to pursue a career as a writer in New York. After finding some success, he turned back around and went home to his family farm both to grow tobacco but also to continue his writing career on his farm, where he built himself an office with a 40-pane glass window with a view of the Kentucky River and whatever else he chose to look out at.

He is also an activist, working tirelessly to support family farmers in an era where they are slowly being pushed out into extinction. Most family farmers are caught up in a Catch-22 situation in which in order to compete they have to increasingly mechanize their farms but in order to afford to do that they have to buy more land and cultivate it. They get caught in this endless cycle in which they need to expand but the more they expand the deeper in debt they go.

If you’re expecting a bio doc on Wendell Berry as I was, you will be sorely disappointed. This really doesn’t give a lot of background information other than stuff you can essentially find on Wikipedia. We hear Berry reading from his essays, Berry in vintage interviews from the 60s and 70s, from a debate he had from agribusiness advocate and former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz who in many ways is the architect for the factory farming that brings most of the food to our table in 2017.

The beginning is very much like Koyaanisquatsi with the visuals and also the Philip Glass-like music. Over this we hear Berry reading prose in his stentorian voice that reminds me a bit of Johnny Cash from Berry’s magnum opus The Unsettling of America.

Afterwards, we are treated to interviews of fellow farmers in Henry County, telling about their economic difficulties and how Berry was an inspiration to them. One, Steve Smith, talks about how he went from tobacco farming to organic vegetables and how it seems to be saving his farm.

In some ways this feels like a WPA film from the 30s even though much of the archival footage is 30-40 years after that era. Berry is very much against factory farming but he doesn’t seem to address some of the other reasons that family farming is failing; for one thing, the younger generation don’t WANT to be farmers. There are plenty of farmers whose kids, seeing the hard work for diminishing economic returns want no part of the family business. That’s not to say that all younger generation farmers would rather do something else with their lives – there are still plenty who feel that almost mystical bond with the land – but there are fewer of them now than there have ever been.

And while Berry seems to advocate a more Luddite version of farming that is more labor intensive, it doesn’t address the issue of feeding an increasing population worldwide. America hasn’t always just fed its own; we export enormous amounts of grain and other agricultural products. Many family farmers rely on that demand. As the population increases, more efficient methods are required.

Yes, there is a bucolic and rustic feel to the film that I liked but the conclusions don’t seem to address all of the real-world issues that farmers worldwide face. It’s nice to want to preserve a way of life but sometimes that way of life has to submit to progress.

The images here are beautiful and the filmmakers do a good job of presenting their case but the movie seemed to be more of a screed than a portrait of Berry as advertised. It seems to be more of a hagiography as the filmmakers fail to address issues that are essentially ignored in Berry’s writings. He’s a great writing but lyrical poems and prose do not an argument make.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography of rural Kentucky is occasionally breathtaking.
REASONS TO STAY: This is not so much a biography so much as a snapshot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the sequence in which a three-legged stool is being carved by hand, the carpenter is actually producer Nick Offerman although his face isn’t used on-camera.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Make a Farm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Bad Genius

Advertisements

White Sun (Seto Surya)


You know you’re in trouble when your ex-wife brings soldiers to the party.

(2016) Drama (Kimstim) Dayahang Rai, Asha Maya Magrati, Rabindra Singh Baniya, Sumi Malla, Amrit Pariyar, Deepak Chhetri, Deshbakhta Khanal. Directed by Deepak Rauniyar

As we get older, we tend to like things to stay the way they are. Change frightens and confuses us. We find those who advocate change to be untrustworthy.

In Nepal, a civil war that lasted from 1996-2006 divided royalists, who believed in Nepalese traditions and Maoists, more progressive sorts In the tiny village of Nepaltra, the war decimated the village leaving few men other than the village elders and the town doctor Suraj (Baniya), the son of the former mayor and a Royalist himself. When the ex-mayor passes away, Suraj’ brother Chandra (Rai), an insurgent who now lives in Kathmandu, is summoned to help carry his father’s corpse down to the riverside where it will be burned according to longstanding village traditions.

Chandra – who was known as Agni during the fighting – and his brother fought on opposite sides during the Civil War and the enmity between them is boiling just under the surface. Making matters worse is Chandra’s ex-wife Durga (Magrati) whose daughter Pooja (Malla) is not Chandra’s. She’s not willing to divulge the details of her paternity and Suraj is one of the possible candidates. Pooja herself is hoping that Chandra is her dad. Durga needs Chandra to sign paternity papers acknowledging that Pooja is his even though she is not; without that signature, she can’t get the schooling that Durga desperately wants her to get. Complicating matters is street urchin Badri (Pariyar) who rumor has it is Chandra’s son.

While carrying their father’s body down to the river, Chandra and Suraj snipe at each other until the anger boils over and the two come to blows. Suraj walks off in a huff and it is up to Chandra to find suitable pall bearers as the remaining men are too weak and feeble to carry the corpulent corpse’s body down the mountain to the river. Accompanied by Pooja and Badri, Chandra goes to neighboring villages to find someone willing to help him carry his father’s body the rest of the way to his final rest.

Rauniyar is an emerging talent from an unlikely cinematic base but when you consider the kind of background scenery he has to work with and the richness of the Nepalese culture, things fall into place. Rauniyar takes advantage of both of those elements here as he creates a movie that is beautiful, lyrical and thought-provoking all at once.

The beauty is courtesy of cinematographer Mark Ellam but given the dramatic scenery of Nepal he certainly has a leg up but the movie isn’t all about pretty pictures. This is a movie about the clash of traditions and progress, as an ancient culture tries to find its way in a world that is changing rapidly. Some of the changes are frankly welcome; Durga is despised in the movie because she is not only a woman but one of a lower caste. She is not even allowed to touch the body of her ex-father-in-law who she has been caring for during his final illness. There are many strictures in the daily life of the village that are senseless and a bit misogynist.

But it’s exactly that thinking that has to come under some consideration. In an era of cell phones and social media who has the right to tell someone that their society has to change? While I agree that things that are discriminatory and keep people from realizing their dreams should change, the rhythms of life that have been there for centuries can be a tricky thing to adjust to modern rhythms.

But that’s not what the Nepalese Civil War was about, of course. It was a determination on how they wanted to be governed and while the Maoists won out, the Royalists continue to seethe and certainly the division between Chandra and Suraj illustrates that. One of the more fascinating studies is the village priest (played by Deepak Chhetri) who worries that the identity of the villagers will be lost as their traditions disappear. It is not an unjustified fear.

The movie is powerful and emotional and while you might think that the grief over the loss of the father would be central to the story, it really isn’t. Suraj exhibits more grief over the loss of his culture than any for his dad, although he sees his father as representing the best of the village culture. Chandra, who is a good man for the most part, does seem to regret having left his home although one also gets the sense he feels it necessary. He has been burned by previous relationships and although he is kind to both the children and his ex-wife, there are some walls up that likely have to do with how the relationship with his ex-wife and brother ended up.

This is a very human movie and while it isn’t always delightful there are some moments of quirky humor, such as the attempts to get the somewhat obese corpse out of a tiny upstairs window since it can’t pass through the front door of the house due to local tradition. There are some moments of great pathos. While I’m not a fan of the ending, it’s really the only thing in the movie that felt wrong to me and quite frankly I was pretty much alone in that thought at the screening I attended.

The performances here are top notch; Rai is one of Nepal’s most popular actors and he shows that popularity is completely justified. Magrati, who acted as the casting director for the film as well, also shows some chops as she takes the part of what could have been a shrewish ex-wife and gave it depth, dignity and sympathy.

This is the kind of movie I truly adore. Not only does it present a culture that I don’t know much about but it is presented in a way that makes me consider the pros and cons of village life in Nepal. It also makes me consider the similar battles between the traditional and the modern in my own culture. While you can make what allegories you will of this film, I think there’s enough here that is universal that will appeal to any moviegoer who has curiosity about other cultures. This is an early favorite for the best movie of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A powerfully emotional film depicting the clash of traditionalism and modernism. The cinematography is gorgeous. We get a glimpse at a culture that is rarely seen in the West. The performances from Rai and Magrati are terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: Some audiences may find it slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some smoking and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both of the films Rauniyar has made to date take place over three days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Departures
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Beauty and the Beast (2017)