By Stephanie Archer
The white Alba truffle is one of the most desired and rare mushrooms in the world. And, to make it all the more rare and desire-able, to this day it can not be cultivated. It can only be hunted by those who have become masters of their trade. Yet, truffle hunting is not a one-man venture. Rather, truffle hunting is a family venture, not amongst those in the familial sense, but in the sense of a herd. Truffle hunters find much of their success through the keen abilities of their canines. These dogs are their children and their business partners, working in unity to discover what is buried deep in the forest.
A part of the 2020 lineup for the New York Film Festival, The Truffle Hunters is a documentary that follows these masters, many spending an entire lifetime perfecting their trade, others facing the changing times that technology has created. Constantly hovering are those ready to snatch the golden fungi these hunters find, paying low to sell high. Yet, this is not just a documentary about hunting rare truffles, it is also about the relationship between an industry and a passion and a man and his dog. While it loses its gusto at times, this documentary is a rare gem much like the truffles they are searching for – a documentary within a documentary.
Viewers are first introduced to the hunter, trudging through the forest in search of what lies beneath the soil. I was surprised when dogs appeared shortly after, expecting pigs to be at the center of discovery. There are no title cards to introduce the names of each hunter, rather a working part of a larger picture. The industry of truffles is a symbiotic relationship, and they are a vital piece to the entire function. However, this is not a business that is just handed to you. You need to learn it, you need to learn to feel it. And most importantly, you need to learn to trust your dog. This is relayed to the audience early on, as an 84-year-old man refuses to take a member of his family to “his spots”. He will go to the young man’s “spots”, or they can search in new areas together but never the old man’s. You must learn to find your own discoveries and gold mines. There is a willingness to teach the trade but never to hand over the success.
Yet, as you continue to watch these hunters, you understand that this is not just a business and a livelihood. This is a venture that exemplifies a true passion for what they do. These truffle hunters love hunting for truffles and they love the animals they share it with. Carlo’s name can be heard frequently throughout the film yelled out by his wife. While she is not involved in the industry, her concern and reality contrast Carlo’s need and desire to be in the forest and continue searching. She wants him home, claiming he is too old for truffle hunting, especially at night. A scene of Carlo sneaking out of his window at night to the joy of his dogs not only gives a child at heart feel The Truffle Hunters but a deepening of the passion he was born to do.
While hunters face many challenges such as seasonal conditions, overcrowding, and poisoning, it is not only other hunters in the forest they have to worry about. While they are hunting mushrooms in the forest, others are hunting for profit.
These hunters mine for gold, yet live modest and humble lives. They are hard-working, passionate, and dedicated. Yet, there is an opportunity that swells around them for others to take advantage of. While they have not advanced with the times, many lamenting on how things in the world and the industry have changed, others have kept with the times, leaving the industry ripe for black market trades and shady dealings. It is not uncommon for disputes to arise as others view the rules of the truffle system being violated. While understood to be respected, everyone has their own territory and there are agreements on who you buy from and who you can sell to.
While there is limited discussion on people trespassing and hunting on another’s territory, there is a heavy focus on those who buy and sell beyond the hunter. Hunters are left without the market they once had. They do not know the current price, having to rely on those they sell to – many times at night. Immediately you see the sly dealings made, hunters being told the market is low right now because there aren’t enough mushrooms, buying at obscenely low prices, then turning around and selling for a massive profit.
Yet, where some see greed, others see opportunity and expansion. Truffle smelling classes and events bring more into the industry. Auctions not only entice the fortunate but help drive up the profits on large discoveries. Even those behind the scenes drive home the need of exhibiting this rare perfection, an earthly gem where only the best are brought to market – ones not fitting the bill simply thrown away.
And while many are content with the passion they still retain hunting, some are finding it harder and harder to face the changes the industry has made – and ones still yet to come. One of the hunters actually quiets because of the greed, lamenting a loss of the old ways. People do not love their dogs and they do not have fun. And to these hunters, the dogs are the heart of everything.
MAN’S BEST FRIEND
While dogs are used to hunt mushrooms, they are not seen as working dogs. They are family members, treated as children, surrounded by a community that reveres their importance to the industry. “Dogs are innocent,” one man says, and nothing about this documentary could be truer. There is a bond that goes deeper than any human relationship these men have, and it is in this element where The Truffle Hunters finds its true heart.
These hunters are seen in the bathtub bathing their dogs, singing to them in the car, cuddling, and worrying what will happen to them when they are gone. They attend church, blessings are given out for the success of both hunter and dog. As men drink, the fondly recall the “good” dogs that came before, tears threatening just below the surface. Their lives are truffle hunting and their dogs – one man lamenting the untimely death of his dog by saying, “If my dog dies, I die.” There is a connection through work and life that is fused, one that makes this documentary as successful as it is.
The Truffle Hunters is filled with beautiful stationary shots of the landscape and forest, the earth-toned colors filling the screen. All around The Truffle Hunters is a beautiful film, though not without a few missteps along the way. Creatively, dogs are given cameras as they search for truffles throughout the forest. A seemingly good idea at first, it creates a somewhat dizzying effect for those watching. The film also skims over many questions that are raised. While leaving much to be inferred, as a viewer, I wanted more. Why do they hunt at night? Why can they not sell at the market – where did it go? Why the poison? I wanted a deeper and richer picture.
Even with a few missteps along the way, The Truffle Hunters provides a unique view into a world and an industry many have little knowledge and understanding, delivered with heart and passion. If you have the chance, give this gem a chance.