by Marta Bałaga
Celebrating its gala premiere at the Zurich Film Festival, the Cannes 2020 label documentary The Truffle Hunters [+] explores the mysterious world of the most exclusive fungus in the world, and the people behind it. As well as their beloved dogs. We talked to its directors, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw.
Cineuropa: The universe of truffle hunters is so strange; how long did it take for them to feel comfortable around you? Enough to continue these long discussions with their dogs, for example?
Michael Dweck: We found this village in August 2017 and when we asked about truffle hunters, nobody knew who they were. “They live in the mountains, and when we want a truffle, we put money in a wooden box and the next morning the truffle appears.” We thought it would take us a month – it took a year. They would say: “We are not truffle hunters, what are you talking about.” To which we would respond: “The priest told us you are! Come on, it’s the priest!” The big breakthrough came when we went out one night with a truffle hunter. These guys walk 15-20 kilometers in the cold with no lights. We came out of the woods exhausted, but he wasn't. He is 86. He took us to his cabin, cracked some eggs and shaved a truffle for us. That person spread the word around town that we were ok.
It sounds like The Blair Witch Project, with you going into the forest to find these almost mythical creatures!
Gregory Kershaw: It felt like it, believe me! We started to see all these unique things that were so odd to us, and completely normal to them. The way we film allowed us to capture them in a way that made everyone comfortable. It was about spending time with these people. We wanted to bring the viewer to our subjective perspective of experiencing this world. How do you show what this place feels like? How do you show what a truffle tastes like? That's why so many times you see two people sitting at a table. They would have dinner and we would set up the camera and let it roll.
It would be easy to admire them for living so close to nature, staying close to the old ways. But it also makes them susceptible to exploitation. As one of them says: “I have no way of knowing what is a fair price.”
MD: They knew what we were up to. We were going from village to village, looking for a pregnant truffle dog, which isn’t easy to find. We went to have a coffee in one town, and someone said: “So you are the ones looking for a pregnant truffle dog? Here is the number, he is waiting, his dog is going to give birth in two days.” Everyone knew what we were doing. The truffle hunters stay in their villages, but then they go to have a coffee or a glass of wine, to read newspapers and gossip. And truffle hunters, we learnt, lie to each other. They would never tell another truffle hunter that they’d found a truffle. Ever! The first ones we met have known each other for 81 years. “Do you both hunt truffles?” “Yes.” “Have you ever shared anything?” “No”. But they keep diaries, going back for generations, about where they found a truffle. What the humidity was, what the temperature was, when was the last time the lighting struck.
GK: There is this intersection between where the truffles come from and where they end up. That contrast was so interesting. There is this form of capitalism and, you could say, an exploitation of the hunters, who do not get much money even though their truffles sell for thousands of dollars. But there is a thrill to it. It's a game. The money is nice, but it's not the motivation. Maybe it feels like making an independent film?
With the indie movie community, nobody is going to tell you how much money they sold their film for either. Did they tell you why there are no women truffle hunters?
MD: We did find a young generation of women truffle hunters. One of them found the biggest truffle that year. They told us the women wouldn’t trust being out in the woods with a bunch of men at night. Also, their passion was really hunting porcinis! Or they would pick saffron flowers — one of those women said that her husband's mother had "cursed him with thick fingers”. He couldn't do the job.
There is a mobster feel to the way these truffle deals are happening, in some dark alleys or at night.
GK: We talked to this Michelin-star chef, Enrico Crippa. We thought we were going to film it in his beautiful restaurant and he said: “No – the truffle deal is like a drug deal; we do it out back.” It really looked like that, except they were selling a fabulously expensive fungus.
MD: We were told that every Wednesday at 3am, in this particular place, there is a black market. Someone told us where the spot was, but nobody knew anything about it! Then we came back, at 3am, and there it was: a street full of people in trench coats, reeking of truffles. It was over in 15 minutes. It took months for one of these guys to talk to us. With one of them, it took years, and then he told us about this one guy he doesn’t like because he is taking customers away from him. But that other guy said the exact same thing about him.