In Conversation With: Laura Dunn at SXSW

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Laura Dunn is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist based in Austin, TX. Her feature-length documentary, The Unforeseen, won accolades on the international festival circuit, including the Truer Than Fiction prize at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2008. Her newest film is The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, which had its World Premiere at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival to significant acclaim. Dunn’s film connects the immense career of writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry to contemporary concerns about American agriculture. The Seer was edited and directed by Laura Dunn and produced/co-directed by Jef Sewell with cinematography by Lee Daniel. Sound recording and design were by Justin Hennard with an original score by Kerry Muzzey. Its executive-producers include Robert Redford and Terrence Malick, with Nick Offerman as co-producer.

Laura Dunn spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about working with Wendell Berry’s family, the cultural obsession with screens, and The Seer’s receipt of a Special Jury Recognition award, with particular notice for Lee Daniel’s achievements in cinematography. This conversation from South by Southwest has been transcribed, edited, and compressed for publication.

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Editor’s Note: The Seer continues to tour the international festival circuit. I encourage you to check out their official website for screenings and release information.

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Sean Malin: The Seer is really a work of editing, astonishing lyric editing. It’s almost autopoetic or musical, as we’ve discussed. As someone with a background in documentary journalism – not really the traditional route to filmmaking – how did you train to become capable of editing a feature-length film?

Laura Dunn: Training for me has been through practice. I’ve been fortunate to do two features, and between both features, I was able to create a life where I could work on them for a long time. To put it mildly, I’m not a very efficient editor. It takes me a long time to mull over my work. Don Howard, who is a professor at UT [at Austin], was definitely my first real editing teacher. Props to him for sure. From there, I worked with Terry Malick; and the way he teaches you to edit is through his feedback. You put your head down, you start mulling through the material, you cut things. Then you present it to Terry, who tears it apart, and it’s back to the drawing board.

That was the process when I was making The Unforeseen, particularly. There were several nights when I was editing a lot and he was giving me a lot of feedback. That really was my training, the grueling process of getting feedback from a master. With The Seer, I was a little better at cutting the material as we went. When we were shooting, I’d say cut, get feedback, and then we’d move on to the next shoot. [By the end,] I didn’t have this mountain of stuff to work through; the editing was more incremental.

I also think that I had this text, the Wendell Berry text, for this film. That includes his many books. So we were more organized when we filmed – I wasn’t just chasing an issue. I was trying more to render the worldview that could be reflected so beautifully across fifty books.

SM: I know that you had a little bit of a relationship with Wendell to start with, this film didn’t just “come about.” You made a conscious decision not to have dialogue between you and him in the film, effectively excising yourself from the film. That’s important because you have these relationships with [his wife] Tanya, the farmers in the film, and Wendell’s community, yet you are not a character in the film. That’s such an interesting choice to me because nobody else was being given the opportunity to interview Tanya, or getting Wendell to narrate and record his own poem. You must have considered, in making a nonfiction film about Berry, yourself as a substantial element in the telling of his story.

LD: Oh gosh, I can’t stand that. I just can’t stand the idea of me in the film. I have a visceral reaction to that. I hate it. One of the only times that I have ever seen a documentary filmmaker get away with that would be Roger & Me, but probably not since then. I am in the film in the sense that you do hear my voice in that one conversation with Wendell. I didn’t really want to put myself in, but I felt that what he said in that conversation was so lovely, and so raw, and so real. You feel like I’m sitting in the room with him rather than listening to him formally construct his thoughts. I liked the intimacy of [that conversation], and it didn’t really work without hearing the back-and-forth between us. It had an unvarnished quality.

There were a few other times where I felt that it was okay if you heard my voice because then you would know that this woman’s voice must be the voice of the director. So you feel the presence of me there, but without drawing attention to it.

SM: I have seen this done since Roger & Me with some success, but really only in voice. In terms of films that have the director involved as “character,” one of my favorite nonfiction directors working at the moment is Joshua Oppenheimer. I think his films are sensationally brilliant, and of course the MacArthur Foundation agrees. His voice, while he might suppress it for the first two hours in a film, then gets revealed in the final half-hour of both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. He appears vocally. It’s almost like a performance, really.

Did you feel when you used your voice in The Seer that you needed to “act up” or be a certain version of yourself in your conversation with [Mr. Berry]? What kind of mask do you wear when you’re interviewing him?

LD: When I was doing those interviews, I did not think I would be including my voice. That was more of an editorial decision later. It definitely wasn’t something I had pre-planned; very little of what I do is pre-planned *Laughs*. So to be honest, I tried not to put any kind of mask on with Wendell. I try in my interviews with people to get to know them. My interview style is to give people a lot of space and time. Sometimes that even seemed to frustrate Wendell…I was trying hard to unmask myself and to be as transparent as possible, even vulnerable in a way.

SM: Does Wendell Berry like you?

LD: I hope so, I really hope so.

SM: His wife, Tanya Berry, definitely likes you.

LD: Tanya really likes me, yes.

Tanya Berry in field black and white

SM: That’s evident in the photography. There is a beautiful sequence in the film where you cut away from your conversation with Tanya to another character, Steve, who is also sitting on a porch talking with you. Then you cut back to Tanya, and she’s smiling directly at you. When you see that, it’s like, “Oh my god…” You can really see what a luminous personality she has.

LD: Aw, yeah, yeah.

SM: Back to what you were saying about your interview style – The Seer is a feature film, after all. I know that I sometimes tank interviews by being overly involved or vulnerable with the subject. I’ll need twenty minutes of solid chatting and then we’ll get into another forty minutes, and the day will be soiled. Have you had any experiences where your style of letting interviews breathe and develop organically has become a detriment to making the film? How does that impact your editing the film: having to sort through all the moments on-camera where you and your subjects, with no benefit to the structural health of the finished film, are just sitting around having a good time and chatting?

LD: I guess that that has happened, but when I say I don’t “pre-plan,” I really don’t pre-plan. But that doesn’t mean that I’m just winging [the shoot] – there is a whole lot of preparation. There is A LOT of reading, A LOT of research, and A LOT of thought so that when you’re in that moment where you’re interviewing someone, you have a whole lot to draw upon. But I try hard not to control the outcome, if that makes sense. It’s not freeform; my approach is very intentional. But it only works if you have a whole lot to draw upon in the conversation. I make an outline of the things I want to talk about.

Now, was there a lot of stuff in the editing process that I had to go through? Yes, yes, yes. Is that tedious? Yes, very. And is it exhausting? Yes. But I really do feel that documentary is about the discovery. I like that process. I try to hold myself out of it as long as I possibly can so that I don’t impose my own structure onto it. I try to be almost like a scientist: observe the material that’s there and see how it might naturally fit together. I do that as long as I possibly can. Ultimately, you have to have a point of view yourself in order to work through the medium. Nothing’s 100% objective, but that’s why I prefer documentary film over TV news journalism, which pretends to have a 100% objective lens. Documentary is about how there surely is a subjective lens, and how can you make your subjective lens as transparent as possible? That’s where my work is.

SM: That idea speaks powerfully to me. I’m a few years out of graduate film school. When I was in school, I thought it was as obvious to others as it was to me that we were past the point of thinking that documentary or journalism of any kind could be truly objective. I didn’t realize it was still a possibility. I thought we were already in a post-post-modern world as far as nonfiction was concerned.

LD: Right.

SM: But in terms of ethics in journalism and the politics of nonfiction film, that is not the case. Didn’t you get people at your Q&As at SXSW this week who are hung up on the idea that your film is an objective or distant project from you? It’s like people still think documentaries are made by Edward R. Murrow.

LD: Yes, certainly, I get those questions at Q&As, and I also get that kind of feedback from festival programmers, whether they give me direct feedback or just say that the film is “not a good fit.” The Unforeseen did fairly well, as far as indie film goes: it won a Spirit Award, it had distribution, it premiered at Sundance. But it did not get into a single documentary festival – not a single one.

SM: That is amazing to me. Hard to imagine.

LD: It got into AFI and Rome, festivals all over the place. I forget everywhere that I submitted it, but it didn’t get into Full Frame, Hot Docs, or Hot Springs. It was weird. I was like, “Wow, what have I made here?” My husband, Jef [Sewell], has more insight about this than I do. He talks about how I make “emotional documentaries,” impressionistic and emotional.

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SM: I think that’s very well said, actually.

LD: That does make people who are more traditional about the form uncomfortable. But then you look at someone like an Errol Morris or Michael Moore, and they celebrate their subjective lenses, you know? And then — I don’t know if this is true, but Jef also says that I have a very “female lens,” a female way of seeing.

SM: How does he see that coming through visually in your films?

LD: He talks about the lens being very intuitive, and I think he’s right. It is intuitive and very emotional for me. In his opinion, men are more…maybe discreet? “This is how I see it. This is how I want to portray it,” whereas a woman tends to be more relational – there is more of a flow. It’s more of an intuitive response to what comes at me as opposed to needing to break something down, analyze it, and then dispassionately execute. That’s one way of talking about it. He sees that as one of the strengths that women bring to the table. Perhaps that’s something that makes people who are more conservative with the form uncomfortable, you know?

SM: I think the attachment to feminization is what has soiled a lot of films. That’s what makes a movie like The Tree of Life divisive. When I see that film, I remember my dad, who is an incredibly sensitive guy. He’s the kind of guy who cries just thinking about his mother while telling me how well I did at a spelling bee. It’s very beautiful, but we as a society attach this inherent sentiment – this deep emotion that expresses itself in my dad’s system – to one of two things: either it is a feminized quality, and my father is motherly in the way of the Jessica Chastain character in Tree of Life; or it is, as your husband suggests, it’s impressionistic and therefore, like Van Gogh, it’s craziness. Deep emotional expression gets attached to this obscene sentimentality. I think that’s why certain people, like Robert Redford or Terry Malick, responded so strongly to The Unforeseen while festivals may not have, which brings me to The Seer. How have people been responding to that film after your World Premiere?

LD: It has been positive. People have been very emotional afterwards, which is good because – what can a film do? I mean, what can it really do? Is it going to change all of ag-policy in the United States?

SM: Probably not, but didn’t you hear about this thing with Blackfish recently, where now SeaWorld is going to stop breeding killer whales? You never know – The Seer could topple Monsanto!

LD: *Laughs* That’s true, you never really know. It could be and that would be awesome. But what you can [definitely] do, though, is move people emotionally so that they care. I always tell Mary Berry that. What I’m really trying to do is make people care. That is hard when everyone is so inundated with information. It’s like: how do you sort through that? How do you come to see something as important when there are so many different things at your face? If you can pull at someone’s heartstrings, I think you have a better chance of advancing the conversation; and I did have a lot of people come up to me, very emotionally saying, “I grew up on a farm in the 1960s and 1970s. I left the farm. But your film brings me back to my home and connects me to my roots.”

There are so many people who have those roots, whether through their immediate lives or through their grandparents, to this iconic American landscape. We’re really losing touch with that as we have this increasing urbanization. Of course, hand-in-hand with that is this environmental degradation and this lack of regard for the rural landscape. A big part of my mission with [The Seer] – and it’s definitely part of Wendell’s mission – is to elevate the rural landscape as an important place that we should protect and regard. At SXSW, I did see that happening. That was the most meaningful feedback that I received.

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tractor in field

SM: Wendell’s performance in the film of his own poem, as well as his narration for The Unforeseen, reflect how learned and clever this writer is. He has this mythology, as you and I have discussed before, that has turned him into a mythic figure. Whether this is just my own projection or a full-blown misunderstanding, it feels to me that his refusal to appear in the film physically is a perpetuation of his personal mythology. What is the mask that he wears with you when narrating for your films?

LD: He just does not like film, Sean.

SM: Is that really it? He just says, “That’s not for me.”

LD: Yes. There are a couple of things he’s said real clearly to me. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but he believes that the pervasiveness of the screen – film, TV, computer – has contributed to the decline of literacy. He thinks that when you have a picture, your mind doesn’t have to do the work of imagining. When you just have words, your mind has to be activated and you imagine the place, as opposed to just seeing it, which provokes a laziness of the mind. I think he’s got a real point.

SM: Sure, but does that make him scornful of you as a filmmaker? I resent the concept of cinema as a non-literate art. It takes a very learned person to “read” a film completely.

LD: No, he’s not. I agree, of course – it’s your medium and mine – but you are someone who watches films and really analyzes them and really thinks about them. Most people aren’t. Most people are addicted to the medium and want immediate gratification. The pervasiveness of screens is on a continuum with so much of the decline of our culture, in my opinion. People are inside looking at televisions rather than sitting on their front porches visiting with each other.

We’re also talking about someone who is 82, you know? He is not on Twitter, he’s not on social media, he’s not even using a computer. His perspective on the screen is influenced largely by the role that television has played in the changing of community and the backyard. On top of the screen as a problem, Wendell also talked a lot about the problems of idolatry. We live in a time where people want to make idols of individuals. He feels really strongly that he is simply a function of the people that he’s around: his neighbors, and his membership in his community, are primary to his identity and to his values. Living in a little tiny rural community in Kentucky, yet being quite famous, makes it hard for him to just be a neighbor. I think he’s trying to preserve his privacy and his values so that he can simply be another member of his community.

Yet we live in a time where everyone wants to be the next great sports figure. He talked to me about that. He said, “That’s not real. That isn’t the real person. It’s some imagined thing.” He’s right about that, I think. To this day, I see his unwillingness to be on camera as important information about who he is and how he thinks. I don’t see it as simply a constraint. It’s kind of like the lobbyist Dick Brown, who I filmed painting a model airplane in The Unforeseen. He didn’t want to go on camera for other reasons, but that became one of the most…in terms of the impact it had on people, that was one of the things that people liked the most [in the film.] If you don’t see the face, then you have to imagine the face. Activating the mind to imagine is a hugely important part of Wendell’s writing. His whole idea that one should use your mind to imagine a place instead of being given all the information is really quite lovely.

Wendell Seated at desk

2 responses to “In Conversation With: Laura Dunn at SXSW

  1. Pingback: Бетмен Rises: Almost Holy, the Completist Ethic, and the Mythos of Terrence Malick | CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism·

  2. Pingback: In Conversation With: Heather Condo | CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism·

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