Documenting Dissonance

Award winning director Laura Dunn on her evolution as a filmmaker and the story behind The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.

Laura Dunn started making documentaries in response to her undergraduate experience at Yale, tackling the corporatization of the university with The Subtext of a Yale Education. Over a series of shorts, she developed her nuanced filmic engagement with environmental and social issues: environmental racism in Green; overpopulation in Baby; power and ecology in Become the Sky. Her feature debut, The Unforeseen, which tracks the unexpected consequences of a development in Austin, premiered at Sundance to great acclaim. Dunn has received a Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowship, the IDA’s Pare Lorenz Grant, and an Independent Spirit “Truer than Fiction” Award, among many other honors. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and six young boys.


The Seer will have its D.C. premiere at the 24th Annual Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital. The film screening took place at National Geographic on Thursday, March 24th at 7pm.


DCEFF: How did you get involved in filmmaking?

LAURA DUNN: As an undergraduate at Yale, I planned to study theater arts and journalism. But the environment there stirred me in unexpected ways. The extreme contrast between the wealth inside the university gates and the desperate, surrounding poverty of New Haven was unlike anything I had ever encountered. While there, I lived simultaneously in two, very different worlds. I was a student worker in the dining hall and, therefore, de facto member of the local workers’ union. During the day, in the hallowed halls of my elite institution, professors talked about enlightenment and shaping leaders for the future. But, in the union hall, at night, the custodians, secretaries, electricians and food service employees, who served the university on a daily basis, would rant angrily about social inequality and economic injustice. When a volatile and prolonged workers’ strike broke out, it was mere instinct to borrow a friend’s camera and begin documenting. In trying to make sense of this cognitive dissonance, film emerged as a natural medium. It allowed me to capture these two worlds and juxtapose them for others to see, while integrating the disparate pieces of my own experience.

DCEFF: What drew you to this particular project?

LD: My first feature documentary, The Unforeseen, features a poetry reading by Wendell Berry.  When touring the film at festivals and events around the world, I was very surprised to learn how few people had heard of Wendell Berry. So, I set out to make a film about him in an effort to draw more readers to his prolific and important body of work.

DCEFF: What challenges did you face in the process of producing the project?

LD: The primary and practical challenge was finding a way to draw a portrait of someone who does not want to be on screen. I viewed this constraint as an opportunity to reflect the subject’s essence. Rather than asking, “How does the world view Wendell?,” we asked, “How does Wendell view the world?” By lensing his landscapes, neighbors, family and friends, this portrait draws the central theme that undergirds all of Wendell’s work — home and place.

And, on a personal level, my fellow producer and co-director Jef Sewell and I have 6 young children, four of whom were born during the course of this project. Traveling and working with them in tow has slowed us down a bit, but it’s always enriching and worth it.

DCEFF: How do you hope audiences will receive your film?

LD: I hope it moves them in some personal way. In an age of media saturation and information overload, I think the unique roll a documentary film can play is that it strikes an emotional chord and moves someone to engage in ways they otherwise would not.

DCEFF: What’s next for you, after the Festival?

LD: I intend to pursue mainstream opportunities and a grassroots campaign for The Seer. Through film festivals, we hope to generate awareness for the film and attract distribution partners. The film could bring a new dimension to the ongoing food policy conversation and encourage sensitivity to the needs of rural communities and the farmers, themselves. Mary Berry, Wendell Berry’s daughter (and one of the key voices in our film), directs The Berry Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for farmers, land conserving communities and healthy regional economies.  We plan to work with her and others on an audience engagement project that includes a grassroots film tour, the creation of supplemental educational materials and a social media campaign to raise both awareness of and funding resources for continued policy work.


Register for the The Seer screening here.

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