by Angela Dawson
The Truffle Hunters opens with a wide shot of a steep green hillside forest of trees. As the camera slowly zooms in, a moving figure begins to emerge and then several smaller creatures, which turn out to be Sergio Caudo, an older man and his pack of specially trained dogs. We’re witnessing a treasure hunt. Not for gold or game, but for something buried beneath the damp dark soil—a pungent potato-like fungi, the Alba white truffle, that grows exclusively in this remote and mountainous Langhe region of Piedmont in Northern Italy. Top chefs from around the world and their wealthy clientele crave these ugly yet magnificent tubers and are willing to pay top dollar to middlemen, who in turn haggle with these aging hunters—most in the 70s and 80s—over their finds. The truffles are harvested during the fall and winter, more often than not at night so the hunters can keep their secret hunting grounds just that.
Filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, who previously collaborated on 2018’s The Last Race, involving a Long Island stock car racing track threatened with repurposing, tackle yet another endangered social enclave, as this art of truffle hunting using dogs with a keen sense of smell faces existential threats ranging from climate change and deforestation to the arrival of greedy interlopers who will stop at nothing, including poisoning the dogs, to gain an advantage.
Dweck, a renowned photographer and author, is based in New York, and Kershaw, a cinematographer, who also has directed and written short films, who now lives in Sweden. The two met when they lived in the same building in New York years ago. After each vacationed in the Piedmont region separately—and unbeknownst to each other—following the completion of The Last Race, they decided to return with camera equipment to capture this fascinating world and the unique individuals who inhabit it.
Like truffle-hunting, wine-making or building Rome, filming The Truffle Hunters took time. The filmmakers embedded themselves in the area and find and gain the trust of their wary and secretive subjects. Dweck reveals that they didn’t shoot a single frame of film during their first year exploring the region. And when they finally brought out the cameras, they would often shoot only one scene a day, sometimes allowing the camera to roll for hours to capture only a few minutes of usable footage.
The result is an intimate look at a handful of aging yet remarkably hardy men, their relatives, their trusted dogs, a middleman buyer, and a fussy chef who desires and expects the crème de la crème of the truffle harvest. Audiences are introduced to Aurelio Conterno, who loves and cares for his dog, Birba, more than anyone in the world. There’s also Carlo Gonella, an octogenarian whose vocal wife, Maria, frets over his health and safety whenever he sneaks out of the house on a truffle quest with his dog, Titina. Another is Sergio Caudo, who dotes on his favorite hunting companion, Fiona, when he’s not rocking out on his drum kit outdoors. And there’s Angelo Gagliardi, a former acrobat and retired truffle hunter who, with his stringy grey hair and long beard, appears to have escaped a Rembrandt painting. He sets out to write a manuscript on his trusty manual typewriter about his frustration with the encroachment of the outside world and the destructive forces on the future of truffle hunting.
On the buyer side, there is Gianfranco Curti, who works the phone with the deftness of a stockbroker from his sterile office extolling the virtues of his latest acquisition, often purchased in alleyways from the trunk of a truffle hunter’s car, to the highest bidder on the other end. Viewers also are introduced to Paulo Stacchin, an authenticator, who can put into words the often-indescribable perfume of a great truffle. He examines each truffle one-by-one to determine its quality and value before passing it on to high-stakes sales and auctions, where one particularly large and round truffle can sell for more than $100,000. At the top of the food chain, is the exacting chef Enrico Crippo.
Sony Pictures Classics’ The Truffle Hunters opens in New York and Los Angeles Friday, March 5, followed by a gradual expansion around the country.
Angela Dawson: This region of Northern Italy appears to be such a beautiful, almost magical, place. It draws the viewer in from the opening scene.
Michael Dweck: That was our objective. How can we use the full power of cinema to make an audience feel the way we felt when we were there, and to immerse the audience in that? That’s how the film came to be. “Magical” is a word we use all the time because that’s how we felt when we were there. We felt like it was a fairy tale. It was just too good to be true—to find this place that hasn’t been destroyed by globalization and technology. It still maintains its beautiful local customs and culture. It’s hard to find and feels magical.
Dawson: How did you end up there and how did you find your film’s subjects?
Dweck: We stumbled upon this world by chance. Gregory and I obsess with finding these worlds outside the sphere of globalization and technology—both personally and professionally. We didn’t realize it but that summer, August 2017, we had both, separately, traveled to that region. We only know that because we were finishing the color on The Last Race here in New York. We hadn’t spoken for about a month, and he asked me, “What have you been doing?” So, we talked about what we thought, and we agreed that it felt like a fairy tale. This place has a rhythm to it that seems so beautiful and so different from what we’re used to.
We also heard there were these truffle hunters there. People would ask us why we were there in August and not November, when it’s truffle season. We were like, “What’s that?” and they said, “These old men from the mountains look for truffles in the forest all night long and dig them up. Nobody else has this power except these men.
This one guy told me how he put 50 euros in a box outside (his restaurant) and the next morning the truffles are there like magic. That’s how it started and then it took us three years to make this film. It took us a while to find the real truffle hunters because they’re very mysterious and when you find them, they’re just not interested in telling you anything. They live in remote villages and work as farmers during the day, and then they walk 15-20 miles at night—80-year-old men—with no light on these cliffs in the freezing cold looking for these little pieces of gold.
Dawson: What were the logistical challenges of filming these men searching for truffles?
Gregory Kershaw: The challenge we didn’t expect is that we’re making a film about people who mostly are in their 80s. Carlo was 89. We didn’t imagine we’d have trouble keeping up with them in the woods. But, like Carlo says, he’s faster than a deer … and he really is. It felt like we were in Italy in the 1960s, and we were making a film about young men because that’s how all of them interacted with the world. They have the energy of young men. They listen to the music of the youth but they also have the drive of youth in every step they took.
When we followed Carlo—he’d been truffle-hunting in the woods his entire life, ever since his father took him—and we would be chasing him through the woods in the middle of the night. Then there were truffle hunters like Sergio. Sergio is the truffle hunter you see in the first shot, where he’s hunting on an almost vertical cliff with his dogs.
Dawson: Tell me about getting that sequence, because it lingers for nearly three minutes.
Kershaw: We were renting our equipment from an Italian (camera) equipment house. The day we wanted that equipment, they had only one normal-size tripod that filmmakers use. The only other tripod they had was this monstrously huge tripod that had been used in Italian movies in the 1960s. So, that’s what we were carrying with us. The whole thing was close to 80 pounds. A lot of people think that opening was shot with a drone but we had actually had gone down another cliff on the opposite side the ravine from Sergio. We had dragged that tripod and we were getting that shot. These guys go through some treacherous terrain and a lot of it is at night. They go out whether it’s raining or snowing. Nothing stops them, so we’d be out with them no matter what.
Dweck: They were complaining we were too slow. Sergio grabbed the camera from us and took it down the mountain. He just grabbed it, and we flew down the mountain. We thought we were going to die because there were no branches to hold onto. If you slip, you’d drop 2,000 feet. It’s over.
Dawson: The dogs—Birba, Fiona, Charlie, Nina, Titina and the others—nearly steal all the scenes. I understand you had a dog cam expressly made for your production.
Dweck: It wasn’t the original plan. We had planned to go online and order a camera rig that people have used before. We tried that, but it was just a mess. It didn’t look right. It didn’t give us the point-of-view of the dog. Plus, it made you kind of nauseous watching it. So, we said, “Let’s do our own.” Luckily, we found this shoe cobbler, and explained to him what we wanted: We wanted it to show the dog’s nose as it’s looking for the truffle. He told us to come back the next day and he’d have something ready, and he did.
He made this thing with straps that was comfortable for the dog, and we tried it out, and then we lost the camera. We came back two hours later with no camera. But the dog came back, which was good. Then we went to the cobbler again, and again and again and again. Eventually, we had this beautiful lightweight rig that fit on all different shaped dogs, and that worked out really well for us.
What we discovered was not only how excited the dogs were while they’re playing this game (of truffle hunting) but there’s also this unique relationship between the truffle hunters and their dogs. Like the case of Aurelio, we noticed that he has what seems to be conversations with (his dog) Birba in the woods, sharing some really personal things. He would say things to Birba like, “We have to be careful in the woods. There are other dogs out here. I’ve been planning a Christmas dinner for you; I’ve been gathering all these vegetables and a chicken from the local farmer. So, I have a really nice plan for you and Charlie and the other dogs.” Because we’re looking from the POV of Birba, we see that Birba’s paying attention and acknowledging this conversation. That led us to this whole discovery in the film of these relationships they have with their dogs. Before we immersed ourselves in this community, we didn’t realize this was common among the truffle hunters.
Dawson: Since these Alba white truffles are in such high demand, did you run into some scary characters during production? Did you ever feel unsafe?
Kershaw: When we started talking to people about this world, they told us about truffle heists. When we started spending time in this community, we discovered everything is secret. Where they go truffle hunting is a secret; that’s why they go out in the middle of the night. They’re also secretive about who they sell the truffles to. We kept hearing these rumors about the black market. One of the truffle hunters told us about this street which will not be named where twice a week there is a black market in the middle of the night. It all occurred on this street right below a church. We went to check it out, but in the daytime, and spoke to a bunch of different shopkeepers. No one had ever heard about this.
Dawson: Or that’s what they told you.
Kershaw: Exactly. So, we went back to the truffle hunter and told him what we were told, and he said, “Trust me. Just go back there in the middle of the night.” And so, we did. This was the first (truffle hunting) season we were there. During that time, there were very few truffles; there had been a drought, so all of the buyers were really desperate. They have clients from all around the world calling them—three-star Michelin chefs who really want their truffles. So, we went back to that street at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., and there was this line of truffle buyers. They all had their collars up and their head tilted down., smoking cigarettes. They were just waiting.
A lot of these truffle hunters drive these little Fiat Pandas. This one guy pulls up, pops open the trunk, and the street fills with the aroma of truffles. All the buyers came running out, cash in hand, trying to make their deals. Then they scurried away. That’s one component in this very secret marketplace.
We filmed this three-star Michelin chef Enrico Crippo who has a restaurant right in the region where we were filming called Piazza Duomo, which is one of the best restaurants in the world. We told him we wanted to film him buying truffles because he buys them from Gianfranco (Curti, the middleman). We assumed we were going to film in this incredibly beautiful restaurant, and he asked us, “What are you doing setting up your camera here? A truffle deal is like a drug deal, it happens on an alley.” It’s true, a truffle deal is kind of like a drug deal.
Dawson: So many of the conversations are so intimate. You almost ask yourself, “Did this happen? Was it scripted?”
Dweck: That’s how we felt.
Dawson: So, these conversations organically took place?
Dweck: They did. They happened over the course of three years and taking our time. At most, we only filmed one shot a day. We didn’t begin shooting for months and months after we got there. Typically, with documentaries, you want to shoot everything and then piece it together later. But, with us, we really had to immerse ourselves in this community, which was tricky. We were outsiders in a lot of ways. We also needed to learn how we should portray this community. How does it feel to us and where do we want to take that feeling and use the full power of cinema to bring that feeling to an audience? So, you’re seeing one little snippet of maybe a three-hour shoot because we would just let the camera roll.
We’d be in these situations, say, with Carlo and Maria having lunch. Everything’s a ritual. They ate together every day at the same time. The conversations also happened again and again, especially with her telling him to take care of himself and not to get hurt. We’d set the camera up and hope that something would happen that day, and if it didn’t, it didn’t, but if did, we got lucky. But we rolled the cameras for 2-1/2 to three hours and you’re seeing two minutes of that. That was kind of our objective: to shoot a verite documentary that’s immersive.
Dawson: Are your subjects all still alive?
Kershaw: This has been a tough year. We lost Aurelio this year. It was surprising in some ways but I guess it shouldn’t have been, because when we were around him, he was so full of life. That’s why we felt we had to make this film because when you were around him, he’d just burst into song. He was overflowing with life but he was always talking to his dog about what happens when he wasn’t there. “What happens when I die?” he would say. The cause wasn’t COVID-19. Out of nowhere, he had a heart attack. We were really shocked to learn that. He’d moved into a new house that was easier for him to get around. We had just talked to him a few days before he died. He was telling us how happy he was with life. And, just out of nowhere, he had a heart attack.
We hoped to capture in this film a way of being with these people and, for us, it’s a celebration of life. It’s a celebration of his life. It’s a testament to the world that he created around himself and what it’s like to be around him. We hope that when people see this, they’ll feel the magic he had carried with him.