‘Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry’ is a Documentary Dry as a Barren Prairie

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Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

In the documentary Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, it seems as if there are two documentaries competing against one another. On one hand, there’s a modest biography of the writer and environmental activist with an interest in agriculture. On the other is a documentary that examines the ways in which farmers have been ravaged by technology, rising costs, lower food prices, and the consolidation of resources through corporate farming. Either one of these on their own might suffice as a documentary, but Look & See never coalesces in the edit, leaving the film and its dual personalities conflicting against one another throughout its 80-minute running time.

For over 50 years, Wendell Berry has been writing fiction and non-fiction, alternating between novels, essays, and poetry. Look & See focuses on his non-fiction writing and activism about the modernization of American farms. Archival footage paints Berry as a prophet when it comes the nightmares that would arise due to technological advances and economic policy.

Directors Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell then interview various farmers who have become collateral damage to the unheeded warnings of Wendell Berry. Corporations have become a dominant force in American agriculture, possessing massive resources that allows the corporate interests to maintain an iron-clad grip over the industry. Meanwhile, everyday family farmers have to contend with rising costs due to the needs to purchase more and more machinery to keep up with their corporate competition, leaving them wondering just as to their future in agriculture and whether or not they can keep their farms operational.

There’s plenty within Look & See that taps into our current landscape in America, highlighting concerns of corporate influence and income inequality that is affecting all sorts of working people. However, this film is as dry as a Kansas prairie. Much of these problems can be narrowed down to the film’s editing, which leaves it going back and forth between its two topics. This wouldn’t be such a problem for Look & See had its been able to assert its duality earlier, but instead the viewer is left to wonder just where it’s going for most of the first half as it goes back and forth. When Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry reached its conclusion, I felt no closer to the writer and activist, nor did I gain any extra insight into his writing or beliefs. Even worse, I felt no closer to the farmers who are struggling to maintain their land and provide for their families. There are two movies that are always at odds with each other in Look & See, and unfortunately those two never become a satisfying whole.

Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry
  • Overall Score
2

Summary

A documentary with two conflicting movies, Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry fails to bring much insight into the writer and activist as well as the problems afflicting modern farmers.

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