"The Truffle Hunters" filmmakers on the fungi's mystique: "Everything about this world is a secret"

Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw spoke to Salon about the insular Italian men, their dogs and a forgotten profession

By Gary M. Kramer
March 4, 2021 9:33PM (UTC)
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The Truffle Hunters (Sony Pictures Classics)

"The Truffle Hunters" is to valuable fungi what "Honeyland" was to Macedonian beekeeping. This compelling documentary opens with an overhead shot of a dog sniffing out the precious truffle in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. What the animal finds can fetch thousands of Euros. The handful of octogenarian men who are profiled in this observational documentary are master truffle hunters, and they have no interest in stopping (save one who objects to the greed and destruction it has caused). The men stave off bids for their knowledge of prime hunting spots and blank checks for their dogs. 

But as filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw show, this insular world is rife with competition, a vibrant black market, and class issues. A scene late in the film has a truffle buyer enjoying a meal, however, one of the truffle brokers tells his daughters he never eats them. Why are truffles so desired, and who are the men in this industry? 

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Dweck and Kershaw spoke via Zoom with Salon about "The Truffle Hunters" to find out. 

How did you find these men and gain their trust to tell their story?

Michael Dweck: It's almost unbelievable. Gregory and I happened to be in the same region of Italy, at almost the same time, without knowing it. He told me he was in this town in Northern Italy where it seemed like time has stopped. I told him I was in that exact same region the week before he was there. We talked about the place, and how it was unique; it didn't seem to be stripped of its soul by technology and globalization. There was something magical about that town. We went back together. 

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We were there in August, and they said, "Why aren't you here in November, when its truffle season?" They told us about the truffle hunters, and these old men — they have these dogs and they go out at night and find these truffles. We were then in the trattoria and they had truffles on their menu. We asked where they came from and they said, "We don't know. We put 50 Euros in this box and truffle magically appears in the morning." That lead us to find out who these people were. It took three years. We immersed ourselves in this world and get to know these families.

Gregory Kershaw: Everything about this world is a secret. The towns keep these hunters a secret. It took us a long time to even meet the truffle hunters. The whole act is done at night for secrecy, but also so the dog has less distractions. The markets where they are sold, we had heard about these rumors of a black market, and from a storytelling perspective, it seemed too good to be true.

We heard whispers of it and its one town, which we can't say, and you go to this certain street, we can't say, at 3 o'clock in the morning, two days a week, you'll see this black market. We scoped it out during the day, and we went to each of the shops on the street and asked if they had heard of black truffle market in the middle of the night. They looked at us as if we were crazy.

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We went back at 3 o'clock in the morning and it was all these truffle buyers like Gianfranco, in the movie, and they have their collars turned up in front a church with a streetlight hanging over them, and there was a line. There was a drought that first year, so there were hardly any truffles because truffles bloom after a rainfall. These dealers were desperate. Gianfranco's clients are three-star Michelin chefs who will fly private planes to get truffles and fly back. These guys looked like they were drug fiends waiting for their fix. Eventually, a car pulls up and all the buyers ran to his car, and he opens the back of his trunk. We are watching from a distance as they run with wads of cash trying to get the truffles they desperately need. Every aspect of the truffle trade is a secret. It felt like a fairy tale, which we wanted to capture, but there is a mystery we can build a narrative out of.

You take an observational, immersive approach, even using a dog-cam at times to document this world. What prompted that decision? You let viewers unfamiliar slowly come to appreciate it.  

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Dweck: We saw this as being like a series of paintings, that we take you through one by one, like you would in a storybook. That's how the language of the film came about. It was the two of us, the sound person, a translator who is a coproducer. They are so used to us being in their world they forgot about us, which gave us the ability to frame the shots that we thought were appropriate and why their lives were unencumbered. We also wanted to teach the audience how to see, to take your time, and observe this world. Seeing Angelo cooking a chicken in his house, there's a pot from the early 19th century on his wall. And he had a wood-burning stove, and you listen to the sound, because this world sounds different than the other worlds. We recorded this beautiful symphony of nature, and sounds coming out of the forest. Dogs barking from different valleys, church bells ringing all different tones, and leaves rustling. We wanted the audience to feel how it felt to us; we were after the objective truth. 

For the doggie-cam, we wanted the audience to experience the dog's point of view and how he interacts with his partner. We experimented with harnesses, but we went to a shoe cobbler in Alba, and told him what we wanted. After four to five variations, he came up with a really workable high-tech solution for us, and it was really successful. There really is a very intimate connection between the dog and owner; they are more like family.

The Truffle Hunters

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Kershaw: We were trying to capture a feeling and we wanted to have a deliberate approach and we were making a verité documentary. We wanted to construct images but also disappear from the world that we were filming. We experimented with different ways of shooting, but we discovered we had to slow down and embrace the speed of this community we were filming in. But on any film shoot, you feel this need to be rolling the camera and if something interesting happens take the camera out quick. We had to pull away from that and immerse ourselves in the world we were filming and the rhythm of that. We needed to build relationship. Any shot that came out of that happened slowly. We would find a place and a location that had a feeling that felt like it supported whatever emotion that came out of that scene. There was a dance between want has happening in the world and how we captured with the camera. Every image had you learning about the world, the characters, and being moved through the narrative by the image and the feeling it evokes. We wanted every image we created to transmit the feeling of being with the truffle hunters. 

Dweck: We had only 107 shots in the whole film. There are no cutaways. It's a very pure form.

Can you talk about the market for truffles, the Alba truffles especially? They appear to be sold by brokers, by auction, and on the black market. What is driving this economy? The hunters are not getting rich, are they?

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Kershaw: The truffle hunters we filmed do it because they love it. There's a certain energy and life they get from just being in the forest. Carlo is 88, and he still works with his hands, doing hard, manual labor with his hands covered in the dirt. He says that's what keeps him healthy and happy. That also exists with the relationship with the forest. Being in nature and playing this game with their dogs, and this lifetime of knowledge they develop gives him life. That's why they do it. They sell to a middleman before they end up in final destination and where the price can quadruple. They are aware of that. They like to play the game of negotiating with the dealer, but everyone in this world seems content with the way the marketplace is working. We were struck by the absurdity of it. The hunters lived these incredibly simple lives and then we'd go into Alba which is the commercial center of the truffle trade, and where Gianfranco has his shop and displays truffles like diamonds, and see the wealth there, and the way the truffle is consumed and commercialization around the market. The juxtaposition, there is something almost comical about it.

Dweck: Two worlds never collided but never overlapped, despite being 2-3 kilometers apart. The hunters live in an area that is isolated and remote. Alba is the big city to them.

Kershaw: Gianfranco is the conduit. He has a beautiful store, but his business is getting really expensive truffles to wealthy people all over the word. He says his life is like operating like a drug dealer. The market and availability is always changing. 

Is this a dying industry in that younger hunters are more interested in buying the knowledge than learning the craft or trade?

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Dweck: It's true. A lot of people don't want to dig in the mud and be in the woods in the cold and spend four years training a dog. This tradition has been going on for six or seven generations at least. The hope is that the film might inspire another generation to reconsider what they are doing now with their time, and how beautiful it is to have this relationship with nature and animals. 

Carlo doesn't want to stop hunting, despite his wife's protestations. Another man refuses to go hunting again despite owning a valuable property. He is disgusted by the greed in the industry and the plundering of the forest. I'm glad you gave him a voice. What do you make of his attitude? 

Kershaw: We found this group of hunters, this generation, and they had these lives that were so removed from the modernity that most of us live in. Most of us suffer from social media and being bombarded from digital technology, and the comforts we enjoy on a daily basis that take us away from nature and the relation this generation has with nature is different than the way a lot of urban, modern people think about nature. When you are with the hunters, life feels different; we felt an urgency to make this film. Truffle hunting will continue on in some form, but hard to imagine that it will continue in the way hunters we filmed do it. It's the way they live — lives that are removed from the globalized, digitized world. We were obsessed with finding places like this to explore because it feels different to be in them. These places are harder and harder to find. Modernity and technology transforms things.

Dweck: They don't have cell phones and computers. Their hands were worn and crooked and beaten up. You can see their life through the history of their hands. None of them have been to a movie, either. 

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It's amusing that the agent for truffles does not eat them, despite having a fridge full of them. Are you a truffle eater? Can you describe what makes them so valuable?

Kershaw: Before filming, we knew what most people know about truffles, which is truffle oil. It has no truffles in it. It's a synthetic compound that mimics truffles. It's what a strawberry Starburst is to a beautiful fresh strawberry. What drew us to this world was this community and this place. It's an appropriate center of the world. It's this thing that science has not cracked. The white truffle can't be cracked. It feels like science has taken the mystery away from the world. But the white truffle, it still has that mystery and that magic. It's emblematic of the whole world.

The first time we had a truffle while we were shooting was the first year we started filming. There was a drought, and it had finally rained, and it takes a few days for them to start blooming under the ground. We were out in the middle of the night, and after a few hours, our hunter found one. We assumed he was going to call Gianfranco, but he didn't. He invited us back to his home, he had a wood stove and put a cast-iron skillet on the stove, and he cracked eight eggs, and shaved the truffle over it. It was delicious for so many reasons, we had been freezing out in the cold. We were in a humble but beautiful home, and he was inviting us in at this moment. "You're my friend now." It was an invitation into that world, and the beginning of the real relationship we had with them.  

The Truffle Hunters opens in select theaters March 5, followed by a gradual expansion across the country and on digital.

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Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Gregory Kershaw Interview Michael Dweck Movies The Truffle Hunters Truffles