By Meredith Woerner
In a time of quarantine, the documentary “Truffle Hunters” is a heavenly delicacy meant to be savored, a true meditation on nature and food.
But how did directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw convince the elusive inhabitants of the forest of Piedmont to agree to be filmed? Their very livelihood is tied to the secrecy surrounding their mystical trees, to say nothing of the damage deforestation has wrought across their land. It was going to take patience (the directors spent three years in rural Italy) and a lot of wine and espresso.
“Before we had a chance to even convince them, we had to figure out who the truffle hunters were,” Kershaw explained on Variety’s “Doc Dreams.” “Everything is a secret in the world of truffle hunting, even who the truffle hunters are. So we’d go to a Trattoria, and we’d see that they had fresh truffles on the menu. And we would say, ‘Where do you get these truffles?’ And owner would say, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I just I just leave some money in a box in the middle of the night and a truffle appears the next day. But maybe go talk to the priest.’ And then we talked to the priest and he’d say, ‘I’ll talk to my cousin.'”
After introducing themselves to just about everyone in the town over the period of a year, finally Kershaw and Dweck were deemed worthy to met an actual hunter. “A lot of the relationship-building happened over a bottle of wine or drinking coffee with them,” Kershaw said. “We’re sharing meals with them, we tried to become friends with them before we really entered into the process of filming.”
Eventually, the hunters understood what the duo was trying accomplish: they wanted to preserve this elusive world on film. “Greg and I have an obsession, we’re always looking for worlds that have held onto traditions and retain their identities, where globalization and technology have stripped away the soul, their communities,” Dweck said. “These places are becoming harder and harder to find. In the case of ‘Truffle Hunters,’ we stumbled upon this region in northern Italy and we were fascinated by it. There was something very different about this place. Every place is starting to look the same, it sounds the same, but this place was really different. It seemed to us like it hadn’t been touched by modernity.”
“We do these films because we really are concerned about cultural preservation,” Kershaw agreed. “We want people to realize these cultures offer knowledge and wisdom. And we want to preserve and share that.”
The mysterious subjects ranged in ages from about 85 to 90 years old. Every day, they would set out into a secret location, accompanied only by their beloved dogs, and stalk their land looking for truffles, often walking up to 15 to 20 miles. As the prices of the truffle raised, so did the need for secrecy. However, their biggest fear wasn’t falling down a mountainside in the middle of the night, but, for the safety of their dogs. Territorial hunters would often illegally place poisoned treats for truffle-sniffing companions, which would end in horror for their owners.
The relationship between a truffle hunter and his dog is deeply explored in this documentary with footage of loving baths and even secret languages known only between the dog and its provider. Truly, no dog is more loved than the scene-stealing darling Birba. The sheer cinematic magic between hunter Aurelio Conterno and his treasured Birba is front and center on all the “Truffle Hunter” posters. Conterno sings to Birba, shares a dinner table with her and even contemplates getting married so Birba will have a caretaker after he’s gone. But don’t get this soft spot for a curly-headed pup twisted — Conterno was by far the hunter that took the most convincing to join their doc.
“There’s a scene in the film, which I think it says it all,” Kershaw explains. “Everybody knows about Aurelio: he’s a legendary truffle hunter within the area. This younger truffle hunter was trying to get him to tell him the secret spots where he goes truffle hunting. You have to understand, they can sell [truffles] for almost as much as gold per kilogram… And we filmed them in this dinner conversation and he’s saying, ‘You’re eventually going to die and your spots will be lost, they’ll never be able to be enjoyed by anybody else. You need to share them.’ And Aurelio said, ‘No way, nope, never gonna happen.’ And he responded, ‘If you had children, you would share that secret with them.’ And Aurelio said, ‘No, never!'”
One day, they stopped by Conterno’s home to shoot and he just posted a sign on his door with the word “NO” written on it. Getting into Conterno’s world took a lot of time, and a lot of coffee. However, they all eventually wound up becoming good friends, as long as they deferred to Birba.
“The first time we went to his house,” Dweck remembered, “he had four plates at the table. There were three of us humans, and Birba hops on the table right away, and he serves Birba soup. So we’re next, but that actually told us a lot about about their relationship.”
“Truffle Hunters” is currently screening at several theaters throughout the nation.
Variety’s “Doc Dreams” is presented by National Geographic.
Watch interview below: