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

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After Winter, Spring


On the farm, the work doesn't stop just because it's winter.

On the farm, the work doesn’t stop just because it’s winter.

(2012) Documentary (Terra Productions) Alain, Guy, Nanou, Alfred, Olivier, the Bresquand women. Directed by Judith Lit

Florida Film Festival 2014

The Périgord region of Southwestern France has been a rural farming community going back centuries. When one thinks of the delicious cuisine of Paris, much of what makes it wonderful are the farm fresh vegetables, fruits, meats and cheeses that come from Périgord. There is a timeless quality to the community where farming traditions have carried on with little change for uncounted generations.

Time marches on even in France however and like the United States, a shift has been made to large-scale corporate farms over small family-owned holdings. It has become more and more difficult for small farms to survive between government regulations – one farmer complains he spends more time filling out paperwork than he does tending to his crops – and set prices which seem to go lower and lower while the costs for producing the same amount of crop or product get higher and higher.

In this documentary filmed by an American expatriate who moved to the area but herself grew up in Pennsylvania farm country, we examine the French family farm, once a very large part of the French economic engine but now on the endangered species list in a sense. We meet Alain, a tobacco farmer who has eschewed modern methods and returned back to the traditional methods. Middle aged, he realizes his sons aren’t keen on the labor-intensive life he has chosen and likely will not carry on the family tradition and the bittersweet understanding that he may well be the last of his family to work the land is etched on his craggy face but more importantly in his expressive eyes.

Olivier is a dairy farmer who has gone in the opposite direction as Alain; he has modernized in order to maximize production and make it more efficient. He makes as much with more than 100 cows than his grandfather did 60 years ago with three or four cows. He haunts trade shows where modern farming equipment – tractors, threshers and the like – are on display, many of which are too large scale for his operation and which he couldn’t possibly afford anyway. He carries a wistful expression.

Nanou is a rarity in the region – a daughter who inherited the farm from her father. She is largely retired now and her own daughter runs much of the day to day operation. She sees herself as a peasant – and is proud of the appellation. She feels her lineage stretching into the past, all stewards of the Earth, all feeders of France.

Bresquand Farm has for generations turned out some of the best foie gras in France. Unlike factory farms where the geese are stuck in windowless boxes and force fed non-stop, they allow the geese to wander freely on their beautiful rustic property. Yes, they do force feed the geese but it is something they do with reverence and love for the animals, which seems a bit contradictory when you are stuffing unwanted food down their gullet. Still, they try to be as humane as possible.

Albert is an old man who has lived on his farm his entire life. A neighbor of Lit’s, he has a vineyard which he tends as best he can. His entire family come to help him harvest, or at least a good portion of them. At one time, there were many on the farm helping out and harvest time was a big party. Now, as his life is coming to an end (he passed away shortly after filming ended), there is a bittersweet quality to the event.

The family farm is under siege all over the world. In France, many of those who own small farms feel the pinch from rising costs and shrinking markets. There is less acreage available to feed more people, and farmers are finding it more profitable to sell their land to developers who then build a housing development on it. While they aren’t quite the cookie cutter developments you see here in the States, they are going in that direction.

Lit certainly has a feel for her subjects as well as great empathy for them, given her own history. She prefers not to do a lot of editorializing, allowing her pictures to speak for her and they are some fine pictures. However, the facts speak for themselves that as corporations get more involved with the growing and raising of food, the quality of our food has suffered. While the French farmers talk about the hand-raising of food and how much better the quality of their crops are, the dots are there to be connected.

While the movie kind of drones on a bit in the middle third, it does pick up near the end as we get a few rays of sunshine – the growing movement towards organic food is bringing back the small farm, certainly in the United States and hopefully Europe soon following suit. What I got out of this pleasant documentary is that when we are looking to eat food that is better for us, we have to be aware of where that food comes from. While nobody is entitled to a lifestyle – as I said earlier, time marches on – that doesn’t mean that the idyllic life of the French family farmer can’t continue, particularly as there is an advantage to society at large for retaining them.

The movie is continuing to play the Festival circuit as well as single screenings upcoming in Canada. However, the movie is also available on DVD for those who can’t find it in their local art houses or film festivals. You can order it on their website, which you can get to by clicking on the picture at the top of the review.

REASONS TO GO: Bucolic setting; idyllic cinematography. Makes you think about where our food comes from and nicely illustrates the challenges faced by family farms.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems to lose focus in the middle third.

FAMILY VALUES:  Scenes of animals being killed for food and the force-feeding of geese may upset the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed over a three year period.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cousin Jules

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Before You Know It

Dynamite Warrior (Khon fai bin)


Dynamite Warrior (Khon fai bin)

Just a little missile surfing.

(Magnolia) Dan Chupong, Leo Putt, Panna Rittikrai, Samart Payakarun, Kanyapak Suworakood, Somdet Kaew-ler, Ampon Rattanawong. Directed by Chalerm Wongpin

Thailand, with the success of Tony Jaa and his Ong-Bak movies is developing into another center of kinetic action movies. For those of us who love the genre, that’s very good news indeed.

Like several Hong Kong action movies of the mid-90s, there is a kind of willingness to bend and mix genres with absolute abandon. It can be said that the action is the central focus of the film, it’s raison d’être and while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it can be a bit jarring for Western audiences more used to less chaotic filmmaking.

There is a plot here, however Hunter Thompson-esque it might be. Jone Bang Fai (Chupong) is a mysterious masked bandit that uses home-made rockets (that he often rides into the fray on) and acts as a kind of protector of the poor farmers of rural Thailand in the 1920s. He has a bit of an ulterior motive however; he is seeking a man with a unique tattoo on his chest who murdered his parents years ago. Revenge, apparently, is not only a dish best served cold, it can come with peanut sauce as well.

Lord Wang (Putt) is seeking to profit from Thailand’s slow move to industrialization by selling tractors to rural farmers, who are resisting the change and preferring to use water buffalo as they have for generations. Wang’s solution is to set a vicious escaped thief (Kaew-ler) with a penchant for cannibalism to steal all the water buffalo. Of course this sets off Fai like a mutha.

However, all bets are off when Fai squares off against a buffalo trader with formidable magical powers and realizes this may be the man he’s been seeking. He cannot defeat the trader on his own, so he seeks the Black Wizard (Rittikrai) who informs him that he can only rob the sorcerer of his powers with the menstrual blood of a virgin that he just so happens to have handy in the form of his niece (Suworakood). However, the Black Wizard being…well, EVIL…has his own plans and his agenda may not be exactly conducive to peace and serenity.

Where to begin? My brain is still spinning after witnessing this unholy concoction. It looks like a western and carries many of the plot elements that can be found in that genre. It’s also a martial arts movie, with muay thai warriors inflicting all sorts of mayhem on each other. It’s also a fantasy with elements of Thai mysticism, and yet it’s accurate to its period.

There is a lot of wire work (which we haven’t seen much of in the Thai action movies that have been released in the States) and a great deal of mayhem. Some of the scenes are fairly graphic in their violence but the overall tone is comedic and light. There is a good deal of concentration on menstruation here (Fai asks the niece if she’s menstruating yet which in this country would get you smacked in the face) which may be a bit unsettling unused to the cultural differences between Thailand and the West.

The plot takes a great number of twists and turns until you feel like you’ve been twisted into a pretzel trying to follow it. Much of the story is told in flashback, and at times it can be jarring while at others you don’t realize you’re watching a flashback until it’s done. As with many Asian films, the acting can be over-the-top with an emphasis on exaggeration, something that while is perfectly legitimate in Eastern cinema is frowned upon here.

It can be hard to overcome cultural biases, and I’ll admit that mine made it difficult for me to completely embrace this movie. I’m all for action but not for its own sake; the audiences in Asia are a bit more lax in that regard and there’s nothing wrong for that. Therefore my rating is probably a bit lower than the movie deserves. I will say that I admire the form and the filmmaking, and some of the action is delightful to watch. If they had kept the plot a bit simpler, I might have enjoyed this a bit more. However, in all fairness, this wasn’t a movie made for me or my sort and those with more open minds in terms of plot will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

WHY RENT THIS: A fine example of Asian everything-but-the-kitchen-sink cinema. Some of the action sequences are just sick.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting can be a trifle over-the-top and the story is overly complicated and hard to follow in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence is kinetic and cartoonish and there are a lot of sexual references in the movie (although no sex) as well as some icky scenes of cannibalism and demons; I would probably limit this to mature younger teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rittikrai, a veteran of the Thai film industry, was also the stunt choreographer for the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a nice but short featurette on the make-up effects required to give the Black Wizard his extra-gooeyness.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Timecrimes