A deceptive simple documentary surrounding the foraging of a rare and expensive white truffle in the forests of Northern Italy, directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw
Story: Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s intimate documentary follows a small band of octogenarians and their canine companions as they scourge through the dense woods of Piedmont in search of the Alba truffle, a luxurious food item.
Late last year, barely surviving the pandemic gloom, I stumbled upon British big veg farmer Gerald Stratford. The 72-year-old had taken the Internet by storm with a glint in his eye and arms full of fresh farm produce. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s The Truffle Hunters feels like an immersive extension of a world set light years away from technology and modernity. This world is swathed in mist and fog, and the inhabitants quietly crawl along the nooks and cracks scavenging for the rare nutty, pale gold tuber, so rare, we are told, a kilo sells for thousands of euros.
In a deceptively simple manner, directors Dweck and Kershaw give a peek into the lives of these octogenarians, some with only dogs as family, for whom scavenging for truffles is no longer a job, but a way of living. The fly-on-the-wall style of narrative invites viewers into the breathtakingly beautiful terrain as the camera lurks far behind. These men ruminate about mortality, yet are fiercely protective of the secret spots that grow these gastronomic delights. We are told these variants cannot be cultivated or synthesised in a lab. It’s a fragile ecosystem that threatens to topple over with increasing market demand, and these humorous gentlefolk are the pillars of the fort. There is underlying frustration with the younger lot of truffle hunters, who don’t quite want to spend time with dogs or nature. They’re interested in the moolah.
In contrast, the titular truffle hunters spend time to spotlight the tender relationship of dogs and their human friends. All night, these highly trained dogs sniff out the rare gems so that the men can delicately unearth them. After a nightlong adventure, they would home, bathe and eat together like family. In one scene, a man whose only family is his canine companion Birba, meditates on death and what would happen to Birba if indeed he were to die.
The film is incisive, and yet, is careful to not become intrusive. Instead of piece-to-camera interviews, the cinematographer tiptoes around the subjects from a distance. The movie seems familiar to Achal Mishra’s Gamak Ghar (2019), where scenes play out like tableaux on quotidian life. It’s a sensory overload of an insular capsule tucked in Italy. But The Truffle Hunters isn’t all rainbows and unicorn dust. It references the impact of climate change, deforestation and agricultural pollution on the small community. While even a few decades earlier, Alba truffles grew in abundance, the change in soil texture and chemistry have left these lands unsuitable for truffle growth. But it’s a delicacy served all over the world in grand, Michelin-starred restaurants, and the truffle hunters are no longer able to keep up with the growing demands. The film also obliquely touches upon the economic disparity between the blue and the white collars. While mushrooms get auctioned at staggering price, the growers live in penury. There are also impending threats of dog poisoning and land encroachment by a new crop of competitors.
The Truffle Hunters rings with a similar melancholic humour of Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2019), where the cost of an economic prospect far exceeds that of human life. But there are no overarching moral overtones to the documentary that reveals as much as it proudly hides.
Verdict: Nothing much happens throughout the 84-minute runtime of The Truffle Hunters, but the elusive portrait of a dying culture begs to be watched once, if not repeatedly. There is grief in the knowledge of death, but until then, there is contentment of having lived a life cherished to the fullest in the lap of nature.