On designing a process of filmmaking akin to its subjects to extract riches from a fertile story of tradition and an ingredient coveted for all that goes into finding it.
by Stephen Saito
There are exactly 106 shots in “The Truffle Hunters,” which like the coveted fungi in its title were each individually shaved from a much larger hunk to savor its essence. It wasn’t unusual for directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw to leave their cameras rolling for hours on end in Piedmont, Italy where the elderly gentlemen work well into the dead of night to look for the delicacy with their dogs, so as not to make others aware of where they found what. The filmmakers, who had stumbled into the quiet area — and into each other trying to decompress after last collaborating on “The Last Race,” their evocative look at what were to be the final days of a Long Island speedway — took a year to earn the trust of the secretive locals before they even brought a camera into the mix.
When the time came to start filming, there may have been practical reasons for Dweck and Kershaw to keep their footprint as small as possible, filming in humble homes that had been passed down for generations within the farmers’ families, but the artistic rationale was equally sound when it allowed the beauty of their subjects to emerge naturally, just as it had revealed itself to them, leading to a second decision that makes “The Truffle Hunters” as rare as the truffles themselves when each individual scene in the film unfolds without a single cut, not only capturing the men unguarded but the gentle rhythm of their lives.
There is still considerable suspense in Piedmont, where the pressure to find truffles intensifies as demand for them rises at fancy restaurants and the changing environment appears to be yielding less of them, no matter what covert corners of the land the hunters may know of from decades of scavenging. But Dweck and Kershaw allow a window into a world that few know about, even if that weren’t by the choice of its subjects — largely free of modern incursions besides Giancarlo, who serves as the broker between the farmers and the culinary community — and as much as the film offers an escape to a place of such serenity, where animals are truly companions to humans rather than pets and nature enchants with its many mysteries, it also acts as a way of preserving it when there’s no assurance that the tradition of truffle hunting is sustainable, either due to climate change or from future generations willing to carry it on.
With the film making its way into the world after a celebrated festival run this past year, Dweck and Kershaw spoke about the responsibility they felt towards their subjects and to places on the edge of disappearing in general, using their camera to suspend time yet extend a kind of immortality that only cinema can provide.
Between this and “The Last Race,” has it become a bit of a calling to preserve the history of these places on the verge of disappearing?
Michael Dweck: This has now developed into an obsession that we’re constantly on the lookout both personally and professionally for these worlds that exist outside this sphere of globalization and technology and they’re getting harder to find. This particular world we just stumbled upon when we were both traveling to the same region by coincidence. Unlike the race track, this place had not been destroyed by technology and globalization. This place seemed to be what you’d imagine a Fellini film to be back in the 1960s, removed from the modern world in many ways and the more time we spent there, the more time it seemed like a fairy tale to us. There are similarities of course because they are quite fragile. The racetrack is a piece of asphalt that can be replaced with a shopping mall within a couple of days, which we watched as we were filming “The Last Race,” as a shopping mall [was] being built across the street, and it was the same with these truffle lands. These forests are very easy to deforest — they just plant grapevines, so it’s a very fragile culture.
Was the process of making “The Last Race” informative as far as how you wanted to approach capturing this? You’ve said it was a year in before even turning a camera on.
Gregory Kershaw: Yeah, we worked on that project for so long together and we took a lot of risks in making “The Truffle Hunters.” This idea of just capturing every scene in one unmoving shot, completely unedited, isn’t the way a typical documentary is made and we were only able to take that risk because we had gone through the process of making this other film together. We had seen that when we were taking those risks [in “The Last Race”], it worked and we embraced it. But it took a long time for us to figure out how we could do that over and over again. Our intention was to make it look like a painting, but we’re making a verite documentary, so we wanted to create that shot and just let life unfold within that frame.
What ended up happening is we tried a lot of different ways of doing that and we realized we had to slow down our process. That led us to really only shoot one shot a day during production, sometimes no shots a day and it was just about spending time in a community, feeling the community, listening to the community, and letting that community speak to us and tell us how it wanted to be filmed. Only when it felt right, that’s when we actually set a frame up and we would roll the camera and we would try to do it in a way where we would disappear and let this beautiful life that we were enchanted with unfold before us.
Michael Dweck: Another similarity between the two was our goal to figure out how we can really immerse an audience into these places and make them feel the way we felt, using the full power of cinema – of sound and picture. In this one, we tried smell, but…you know, we did the best we can. [laughs] We had to use sound for smell.
You’ve rendered it so well, I actually could smell the mustiness of the woods and tasted the truffles as best I could.
Michael Dweck: That was part of it – the mustiness of the woods, these homes you were in like Angelo’s house, maybe it’s from 1850s, 1860s, you look at the floor that he’s walked on that maybe his father and grandfather have walked on and you see it’s this stone that’s been worn. He’s cooking with a wood-burning stove, cutting vegetables and back and forth, back and forth, you can see the stories in these places. By using this style of filmmaking, it gives you a chance to really spend your time observing these worlds. Look at the pot on his wall, study the typewriter that Angelo is typing on, look at how Angelo dresses or look at how Aurelio eats, how he feeds Burba [the dog]. Because these shots are two or three minutes long, we give you that time to really observe.
This pieces together in a magnificent way, but did you have a sense of the story you’d be telling from early on?
Gregory Kershaw: We went into this film with really no story at all. We were talking about how do we transport an audience to the feeling of this place, and we made this film over three years, so we were constantly going back and spending time with the people we were filming with. When you spend so much time with anybody, the surface might look kind of placid, but every human being, on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year basis is facing big questions and making big decisions. We all have these often very dramatic moments in our lives that are under the surface that you don’t share with most people. The world doesn’t see, but we started to notice them as we spent time with people and that’s really where all the stories came out of.
With Carlo and Maria, [there was] this question of is he going to stop truffle hunting? It took us a while to even realize that was a conversation that was happening, but once we noticed it, it kept coming up again and again. Angelo, the recluse who lives in this villa in the middle of nowhere, we knew right away. The moment we met him, he’s like “I’m done with truffle hunting and I don’t want to talk to anybody about it!” [laughs] Then the relationship between [the dog] Burba and [his owner] Aurelio, it was very clear they had a close relationship when we saw them working together, but we didn’t realize the depth of it. It wasn’t until we made the dog cam, where it’s a GoPro mounted onto a dog’s head, and we’d let them go into the woods for three hours for a time and we got this footage back and [recognized] Aurelio was talking to Burba — not just giving her commands, but actually telling Burba things about his life. Then we realized that they eat together and all these things that are so unusual and so specific to this world, they came out through our time developing deep friendships and relationships to these people.
It was heartening to learn that you’ve taken an extra step in preserving this place beyond what you captured on camera with the Land Conservation Program set up for its survival. Have these films taken on a different meaning when it leads to actually keeping them alive?
Michael Dweck: We really fell in love with this place and similar with the race track, we were fortunate that it was on its last legs when we were filming, watching it for five years and since the film came out, the track is now doing wonderfully. It’s going to be around for a long time, the community is back, everything is much better. It’s the same with truffle hunting. We are concerned with the next generation of truffle hunters. [Truffle hunting has] been going on for six or seven generations in a pretty constant manner, but kids now just don’t want to dig around in mud – it’s hard work – and also they don’t want to do farming like these guys do. They’re all farmers during day and imagine, these 80- and 90-year-old men all walking around 15, 20 miles at night with no lights. So it’s something we’re very concerned with and that’s why we started this conservation program so we can raise quite a bit of money and preserve a community. And how do we preserve a community? You preserve the land, the forests that they’re in.
That’s what we’ve done, so [the truffle hunters are] going to acquire the land where we made the movie. I wish we could’ve bought the racetrack — and thank God somebody did buy it, our race driver bought it and got other people to chip in, so that’s going to go forever and we think it’s the same for this. We also have an education component. This is not an impact film by any means, but because we fell in love with this place, we’re having a program where the truffle hunters and their dogs are going to teach school children in the communities about truffle hunting, bringing them into the woods as a regular program weekly and they’re going to teach them how beautiful it is to be [there] as opposed to being on your iPhone just playing video games. So we’re hoping that helps. We haven’t shown the film to them yet. We had planned to and of course none of these hunters have actually been to a movie theater before, so we’re looking forward in the fall to showing the film to the entire town and celebrate it.
Gregory Kershaw: One of the things that we realized when we were filming is this community just has a really deep wisdom and they understand the value of a connection to nature, a connection to community, and a connection to having a physical relationship with the world. It’s a simple wisdom, but it’s disappearing from so much of the world and they’ve held onto that and it was revealed to us through the filming process. We hope it’s something that the film shares with the world how much joy they have in their lives and how rich their lives are and [that] just by spending time with them, our audience has that experience and appreciates that simple wisdom they hold.
“The Truffle Hunters” will open in select theaters on March 5th.