Translated from German
With "the Truffle Hunters", the Viennale is dedicated to the hunt for white truffles at the end of the festival. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw on a world into which no digital technology has yet penetrated.
By: Dominik Kamalzadeh
The Alba truffle is considered one of the most sought after delicacies on the planet, as rare as it is hard to find. In their documentary The Truffle Hunters, US filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw portray a handful of proven experts from Piedmont. None of them are under 70 years old, and they know how to guard their knowledge as well as a treasure. A conversation about a culture that seems cast in amber – but which is no longer protected from the accelerations and ecological upheavals of a rapidly changing world.
Standard: it is the end of October, the truffle season has already begun. How's it going this year?
Dweck: it's a good season, the weather was good. We know this because we continue to help the truffle seekers, they send us truffles, which we then send on. You can't grow white truffles, everyone has their own philosophy. Some say it depends on the phases of the moon, the temperature has to drop by 15 degrees, then rain for a day and then the sun comes out again... others say lightning has to strike nearby!
Standard: how many times have you been successful while traveling with these men?
Dweck: Oh, we often traveled 15 kilometers. Imagine it is cold, dark and muddy. There are steep slopes, you can easily fall there. Greg, how many times did we find something? Two or three times?
Kershaw: in the first season, which was bad, none at all. There was a period of drought and hardly any rain, which is very rare: there were almost no truffles. The dealers were in a rage, because they have customers from all over the world, three-star restaurants that depend on truffles, millionaires, billionaires. It was a very tense atmosphere in the woods.
Standard: amazing that they shared their secret spots with you at all.
Dweck: they didn't really! We saw them through the dogs.
Kershaw: it's like a Gold hunt, the only chance to find truffles is to have a great dog. That's why truffles are so expensive, they cost over 10,000 euros per kilo. At some auctions it went up to 100,000 euros. Knowledge has been kept in the narrowest circle for generations. The hunters have their own knowledge archives: when they find a truffle, they write everything down exactly where and when they found it, under which tree, also the weather conditions. It has something of magic, even science has not fully clarified that.
Standard: anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing uses the also very rare Matsutake mushroom to describe a kind of counter-economy that drives new flowers. Why is it different with truffles and there is talk of a dying culture?
Dweck: because it's still difficult. The children no longer keep up the tradition, they have other jobs. There are no successors or only those who hunt for the wrong reasons. They do not respect nature and unearth the truffle when it has not yet fully matured - the spores are not protected so it is unlikely that the truffle returns the following year. Deforestation is another problem.
Kershaw: it takes not only knowledge, but also readiness. You are out in the middle of the night, eight, sometimes twelve hours. It's freezing cold. But our protagonists love it. Part of the joy comes from hunting, another simply from the experience of nature itself. I think the desire is still great, but technology has reduced the willingness to really get through it. It's easier to watch videos on your iPhone at home.
Standard: so you see a major cultural change threatening this way of life?
Kershaw: We actually thought that it was urgent to make this film because the people of this world have not yet been reached by digital technology. It felt like we were returning to a 1960s Italy – at least one, as I would imagine. Not only in terms of the relationship with culture, but also the relationship with the community, with traditions – it does not look as if this could exist against the pull of digital technology.
Dweck: These are people who are still talking to each other. When they go to the market, they share a newspaper every morning and then have a conversation about sport or politics. That has value for this community. They don't have mobile phones, they don't have computers, but they have to deal with 200 kilos of wild boar, which also love truffles.
Standard: The relationship between men and dogs seems particularly close – even closer than with women.
Michael: When we equipped the dogs with cameras, we are amazed: there was even a special language between the owners and the dogs. And once we had breakfast together, there were four seats at the table. The fourth was for the dog, who was then served the same food as us.
Standard: One of the protagonists who falls out of line is Angelo. He writes his "termination" letter on a typewriter. How did you find him?
Kershaw: a truffle hunter connected us, we had dinner with him, and he was 45 minutes late. One of the first things he said was, "I can't stand truffle hunters!“
Dweck: "I hate you all, I don't want to have anything to do with you!"
Kershaw: We had to film him. Eventually he let us into his house, a large, dilapidated building. There he has his small, magical world, which he maintains. He complains about what is happening in the area, how much truffle hunting has been commercialized, how a delicacy has become a luxury property. He is well informed and believes that people have begun to fall over each other. In the film, he has the position to point to what is happening in the world outside.
Standard: the movie is also visually remarkable, with sophisticated settings. A word about style?
Dweck: we spent a lot of time with the protagonists over a period of three years, drinking coffee and a lot of wine. We only shot when it seemed appropriate, never more than once a day. Each frame is composed in such a way that the action can take place in front of the camera. Burden-free realism, that was our term for it. It should look like you're entering into a painting.
MICHAEL DWECK is a photographer and filmmaker from New York.
GREGORY KERSHAW lives in Stockholm as a cinematographer and filmmaker.
Closing gala: horticulture, 1. 11., 19.00; in all other Viennale cinemas at 20.30 or 21.00