The Seer: Wendell Berry and the Shattered Soul of Rural America

By Tench Phillips

Living here in the greater Norfolk area, we are the beneficiaries of a well-organized urban society. We have cultural events, education, good health care if you can access it, infrastructure and services, and better than average employment thanks to the federally subsidized military-industrial complex. The diversity of peoples that live in our area facilitate multi-cultural experiences and appreciation. And cultural understanding fosters more inclusive political values resulting in, come election time, many local precincts that buck years of Southern White traditionalism and support liberal candidates.

I am happy to be living in an area that will support a progressive art movie theater and yet I’m able to live adjacent to a large maritime forest, inland bodies of water, and the seashore. And in contrast to living in the country, I don’t have to contend with any hunters or trappers tromping through my backyard on a quest to kill animals. Even the foxes and coyotes are left alone to roam the parks and golf courses without drastic city eradication policies.

And yet we also sacrifice much by living in such concentrated populations. Many of us don’t make the time for an immersion in natural settings. We live behind computer and TV screens in our temperature regulated homes and venture out only in our cars. We don’t consider the farmers and migrant laborers who provide all of our food and we may believe that food actually comes from the supermarket. But does our overly dependent lifestyle provide real freedom and fulfillment?

Wendell Berry didn’t think so. Back in the 1950s the talented young man from rural Kentucky with his Southern drawl was already a gifted poet and writer when he entered the writer’s program at Stanford University to study with author Wallace Stegner. His esteemed classmates included Edward Abbey, Larry McMurty, Robert Stone, Ernest Gaines, and Ken Kesey. He wrote his first novel at the age of twenty and would later teach English at NYU and the University of Kentucky.

In the mid 1960s, Wendell abandoned his urban academic life and returned to his childhood home of Port Royal, Kentucky to work a small farm with his wife and family. And that’s what he’s been doing for over fifty years. Somehow he has also found the time to write eloquently about the art of agrarian life and the economics and philosophy that define it.

Today some fifty novels and poetry collections later, Wendell at the age of eighty-two continues to publish and to defend rural America. He writes against the industrialization of farming and the forces of big agribusiness that have gained control over rural America. And his social critiques confront the media that saturates Americans with an endless barrage of consumerism, nationalism, sectarian politics, and war.

Henry County, Kentucky like many rural communities across America, has become a place of quiet ideological struggle. In the span of just a generation, the agrarian virtues of simplicity, land stewardship, sustainable farming, and local economies have been replaced by a capital-intensive model of industrial agriculture. The new order of corporate farming has replaced the family farm with heavy machinery, toxic sprays, and chemical fertilizers. And the results of such radical disruption? Soil erosion and debt – all of which have frayed the social fabric of rural communities and forced their children to leave to seek employment in the cities.

Low profit margins have demanded larger investments by farmers into heavy machinery and more land acreage to cultivate. Smaller operations that couldn’t adapt to the new ways started going under decades ago. The number of small farmers in the country have decreased by half since mid-last century to just 2.1 million working farms.

Writing from a long wooden desk beneath a forty-paned window, Wendell has watched the struggle unfold, becoming one its most passionate and lyrical voices in defense of agrarian life. He has remained an activist to this day, and has joined forces with land steward Wes Jackson to introduce to government planners the concept of a 50-year farm bill that addresses soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.

Wendell has recently taken issue with those liberal pundits in the New York Times who blame a backward and racist rural America for the election of Donald Trump. Their convenient indictment, Berry argues, ignores the decades of destructive economic forces that rural communities have endured going all the way back to the Eisenhower administration. Wall Street corporatism has facilitated the plundering of rural ‘sacrifice zones’ from which anything of value has been extracted at the lowest possible price. The absence of any effective political response from the Democrats in Washington has enabled the right-wing corporate coup of Trump’s phony populism.

Wendell states that “the liberals and Democrats of our enlightened cities have paid little or no attention to rural America for more than half a century. But it has received plenty of attention from the conservatives and Republicans and their client corporations. Rural America is a colony, and its economy is a colonial economy.”

So how is it that a film about Wendell Berry – a man who does not watch any media – was ever made? Only a persistent and patient filmmaker could have pulled it off. Laura Dunn had originally titled her film ‘The Seer’ but right before its release, Wendell expressed his concern that the name sounded too self-important. At the last minute Laura changed the title to Look and See. You’ll hear Wendell’s voice narrating and reading his work throughout the film but he asked not to be filmed for the movie. But his children and friends all appear in the film and liberally use is made of a rich archive of beautiful photographs and film footage of Wendell and his family shot over the decades.

Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry will show Wed, August 16 in the series ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ with speakers and discussion. Laura Dunn’s film will provide a counter argument to the message promoted in the new documentary Food Evolution that shows on Wed, July 26. Food Evolution presents the case for genetic engineering of plant seeds, and chemical herbicides and insecticides to increase crop yields in order to feed a hungry and growing world population. It’s the nightmarish antithesis of Wendell’s agrarian philosophy.

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are currently banned across Europe and in over 30 countries around the world due to health and biodiversity concerns. But in the corporate friendly United States over 90 percent of our corn, soy, canola and sugar beets are GMO, most of them engineered to withstand large amounts of Monsanto’s flagship Roundup. The herbicide contains the probable human carcinogen, glyphosate, although the EPA has continued to back Monsanto’s claim for its safety.

Food Evolution has been criticized by grassroots groups like Food First for being biased or even worse – that it’s food industry propaganda. Food expert Michael Pollan and academic scholar Marion Nestle who both appear in the film, now state that their interview statements have been taken out of context by filmmaker Scott Kennedy and used to portray GMOs as safe and successful. Although the director states that the film shows both sides of the argument and that he has received no funding from special interests, the film was commissioned by the Institute of Food Technologists, an advocacy group that endorses the biotech industry.

In the past we have brought many films here such as GMO OMG, What The Health, and Food Inc. that have been critical of agribusiness and the food industry. Those films were critiqued by some in the scientific community as advocacy journalism and have been marginalized and ignored by mainstream media. But these films have been able to find an audience through DVDs and streaming – and have mobilized an organic food movement along with the annual March Against Monsanto.

So why has the Naro chosen to show such a compromised film as Food Evolution? Well for one thing, the film is showing around the country and has received positive press from mainstream media like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Articles are appearing that support the film’s message that GMOs are the safe solution for the future. The critics have been won over by the film’ competent production, its perceived balanced approach, its scientific investigation, and by its charismatic narrator, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. And yet what makes the film’s argument convincing is due to the fact that it leaves out some key questions and context that would make the viewer more skeptical.

Plenty of people will see this film at theaters and then later by streaming at home. Without an informed counter argument, many will leave theaters convinced that there’s nothing to fear. That’s why the Naro will show Food Evolution in our Wednesday night ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ series with a post-film talk and discussion led by biochemist and food nutrition advocate Mimi Rosenthal who recently retired from years of research and teaching at EVMS. We will critique the film and dig into important topics not well covered in the movie.

 

Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema

 

MAL VINCENT’S SUMMER CLASSICS 

The golden era of Hollywood movies is alive and well on Colley Ave! For this 14th season, Virginian Pilot critic and columnist Mal Vincent has programmed a festival of notable films that he’ll introduce and embellish with personal stories about his relationships over the years with the Hollywood legends. Every Monday evening for 7 weeks in July and August.

 

FOOD EVOLUTION

Although filmmaker Scott Kennedy says that he maintained creative control and received no funding from agribusiness, his film was commissioned by the Institute of Food Technologists, an advocacy group that endorses the biotech industry. Although we hear impassioned voices from both sides of the debate, the organic movement is discredited for being unscientific. While the film has been championed by the New York Times and other big media, some scholars have criticized it as being too biased towards GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The Naro has chosen to show the film so that viewers can make up their own minds. We’ll have a lively post-film discussion led by the experts that will bring needed clarity to these complex issues. Shows Wed, July 26 with speakers and discussion.

 

THE GOLD RUSH

Charlie Chaplin’s most perfectly realized silent comedy from 1925 with piano accompaniment by virtuoso Chris Kypros. Shows Sat & Sun, July 29 & 30.

 

LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD 

This is the untold story of the extraordinary British spy, explorer, and stateswoman Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day. Called the “female Lawrence of Arabia”, she literally shaped the modern Middle East after World War I by drawing the borders of Iraq. Using archival footage of the region, the film chronicles Bell’s journey into both the uncharted Arabian desert and the inner sanctum of British male colonial power. Tilda Swinton is the voice of Gertrude Bell. Shows Wed, Aug 2 with speakers and discussion.

 

HARE KRISHNA! The Mantra, The Movement, and the Swami

A documentary about the 70-year-old Indian Swami who arrived in America without support or money in the turbulent 1960s. It explores how he ignited the worldwide cultural revolution of spiritual consciousness known as the Hare Krishna movement. Shows Wed, Aug 9 with speakers and discussion.

 

LOOK & SEE: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

In more than fifty literary works, this acclaimed author, agrarian philosopher, and family farmer has celebrated a life lived in close communion with his neighbors and the earth. A fierce and caring critic of American culture, he has farmed a hillside in his native Henry County, Kentucky, together with his wife, for fifty years. Filmed across all four seasons of the farming cycle, filmmaker Laura Dunn’s poetic portrait is a guide for those seeking a healthier and saner world. Produced by Robert Redford and Terrence Mallick. Shows Wed, Aug 16 with speakers and discussion.

 

48 HOUR FILM PROJECT

The annual competition of Hampton Roads filmmaker teams who are assigned a character name, occupation, and prop that must appear in a short film that is scripted, filmed, edited, and scored within the 48 hour allowed time limit. Whew! All submitted films are then shown in two separate programs on Aug 15 & 17 and the winners are announced and shown on Sat, Aug 17.

 

I, CLAUDE MONET

Based on over 2500 personal letters and narrated by Henry Goodman, this new ‘Exhibition On Screen’ reveals new insight into the man who not only painted the picture that gave birth to impressionism but who was perhaps the most influential painter of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Filmed at his legendary Giverny Gardens and at locations throughout Europe by filmmaker Phil Grabsky. Presented with Chrysler Museum. Date to be announced.

 

AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: Truth To Power

A decade after An Inconvenient Truth brought the climate crisis into the heart of popular culture, comes the riveting and rousing follow-up that shows just how close we are to a real energy revolution. Former Vice President Al Gore continues his tireless fight, traveling around the world training an army of climate champions and influencing international climate policy. He pursues the inspirational idea that while the stakes have never been higher, the perils of climate change can be overcome with human ingenuity and passion. Date to be announced.

 

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