Sniffing out secrets

Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw chat about their documentary The Truffle Hunters

by Amber Wilkinson

Truffle hunter Aurelio and his dog Birba. Gregory Kershaw: 'It was about taking our time and setting it up and finding the right place to film, where they would be comfortable just sitting or standing for a long period of time'
Truffle hunter Aurelio and his dog Birba. Gregory Kershaw: 'It was about taking our time and setting it up and finding the right place to film, where they would be comfortable just sitting or standing for a long period of time' Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
The Truffle Hunters, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw's celebration of the rare Alba white truffle and the dogs and their two-legged companions who hunt them in the forests of north-west Italy is such an evocative and immersive experience, it's hard to believe the pair "knew nothing about white truffles" when they started the project.

Dweck says: "It took us a while also to figure out what was a good truffle from a bad truffle."

Kershaw adds: "The first thing we learned when we got there was that truffle oil, which is how most people know truffles and think, think of truffles. It's all fake. It's all a synthetic compound. It's really nothing like a real truffle. A lot of people are put off truffles because of it. Real truffle is much more delicate. It's really impossible to describe, I guess our film was an attempt to describe what a truffle smells like."

The dogs in the film certainly know what they smell like and relish the night-time hunt with their ageing owners, almost all of whom are north of 70 years old.

"The dogs are crazy," says Dweck. "I mean, all they want to do is play, they want to hunt. The dogs don't want to hang out and throw the ball. So, these are very different dogs. They love to be in nature with their partner. And it's a game, they're going out to play. You know, they're going out to find a truffle. And if they don't find a truffle that day, the truffle hunter will bury one, so that the dog can find it. So that dog satisfies the partner and vice versa. The dog really wants to find it."

He adds: "Imagine, they're out like 10 to 12 hours a night. They're 80 something years old. It's in the mud and has no lights. We show flashlight, but they don't use flashlights at all in the woods because they don't want anybody to see where they're going. They also don't want the dog to be distracted by birds. There's leaves falling and there's also the fact that there are 200 kilo wild boars that we see in the woods - and they're crazy, because wild boars also like truffles."

Director Michael Dweck: 'The first time that they invited us into their home was a big breakthrough'
Director Michael Dweck: 'The first time that they invited us into their home was a big breakthrough' Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
To give a sense of the dogs' work in the film, the directors decided to fit the animals with head cameras, so that we can join them as they career on the hunt through the woods - a marked change of pace from the more painterly framing the pair of them use elsewhere. It wasn't easy to work out how to fit a camera to a dog and, in the end, it was a cobbler who cobbled something together for them  - what the describe as "a very high-tech rig developed in a very low-tech place".

Dweck says "When we made a decision to put a camera on the dog's head, we thought it was very important for the audience to see the point of view of the dog, to see what they're doing. We also learned about the conversation that was taking place between the two.

"We realised that there's a certain language, although the truffle hunters speak Piedmontese dialect to each other. We didn't realise they also have a dog dialect, that they speak a certain dialect to the dog and they're also, at some point, talking to them about very personal things - about their life, about meeting a woman, things that you see in the film. A lot of that came from conversations we heard when we started listening to the dog cam."

This idea of secret worlds runs through the documentary - both in terms of the men out on the hunt and the more personal secrets they reveal to their dogs in their off-hours. Truffle hunting is, by its nature, a very secretive business, with hunters closely guarding their knowledge of the trees that will produce a truffle year after year. This closed shop approach makes the access Dweck and Kershaw achieved even more remarkable and it required a patient approach.

Director Gregory Kershaw: 'The first year that we were there, it was really mostly just about getting into this world'
Director Gregory Kershaw: 'The first year that we were there, it was really mostly just about getting into this world' Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
"I think that that's why the film took three years to make," says Kershaw. "Because the first year that we were there, it was really mostly just about getting into this world. And the first part was just meeting truffle hunters, which is very hard to do. Because everything in this world is a secret, every every aspect of it - where the truffles are sold, where they're found. We'd go to restaurants where the owner would say they have truffle hunter come in to sell them truffles every morning. We'd say, 'Well, could we meet them?' and they'd say, 'Oh, no, no, no.'

"It took a really long time before we were even able to meet the real truffle hunters in the areas. And that really, that came about that came through building relationships within the community. We'd meet the restaurateurs, we'd meet the priest, and we'd meet the head of the truffle organisation and, little by little, we began to meet people. And, of course, we had to gain their trust. I think a lot of that was helping them understand how we appreciated what they did, letting them in on sort of the process of how we're making the film.

"We would shoot a little bit and show them some of the footage.They are very humble people who don't think of what they do as being extraordinary. We think it's extraordinary, but they don't think of it that way. But they saw what we were filming and I think they see how important what they're doing is in this world. They're aware of the changes that are going on in the world and they're aware of what they've held on to and what they have in their lives and how it is something really special. I think, ultimately,  after we built these relationships, they wanted to help us share that with the world."

Truffle trust wasn't built in a day and the filmmakers had to put in a few miles across the nighttime woods of Italy before they won the hunters over. Dweck said they knew there was something off initially because "the dogs were interested in nothing".

He adds: "We woke up at four in the morning and lugged this giant camera...We'd say, 'Why are the dogs doing nothing?' They'd reply, 'I'm not taking you to the place, I'm just taking you to show you trees.'" But things improved. The directors spent time with the hunters' families and returned repeatedly to the region, every three weeks, sharing meals with them and building trust.

"They also had misconceptions about Americans," adds Dweck "because they don't really have they don't have access to computers and things. They see newspapers in town and that's all they read about Americans - all they read about is the bad guy and they were intimidated by that.They think all Americans fly private jets and drive Rolls Royces. They see what rappers have, what Donald Trump has and think that's normal."

Gregory Kershaw on the Alba white truffle: 'It's really impossible to describe, I guess our film was an attempt to describe what a truffle smells like'
Gregory Kershaw on the Alba white truffle: 'It's really impossible to describe, I guess our film was an attempt to describe what a truffle smells like' Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
"The first time that they invited us into their home was a big breakthrough. We had gone out really early and stayed all night long. And one truffle hunter, he finally got a truffle - it's very hard to find a truffle, and one this big will make 75 euros, but they get less because of middlemen.

"We'd been up all night and we were really cold. He took us to his cabin, he threw in some blocks of wood, got some eggs from his chickens and just cracked them in a steel pot and shaved the truffle on the plate and said, 'This is for you'. And that was a breakthrough for us, because he's spent all night, four days, probably, looking for one truffle - and he should sell it because he's retired and could use the money, I'm sure, but he gave it to us. And that was a breakthrough."

The pair also showed plenty of patience when it came to shooting the film, letting the camera run so that they could capture the perfect moments.

Kershaw says: "Any shot that you're seeing in the film, usually we would run the camera for an hour or two hours. So you're just you know, you're seeing it just a small slice of that. And that was, of course, one of the big challenges of the editing. Because, we couldn't cut together a scene to make it what we wanted it to be, it was when it was. But that process of just setting a camera down, not moving it and then just kind of disappearing. I think it allowed a lot of people we were filming to forget about us very quickly. I think they were actually quite comfortable with us and being in front of the camera almost immediately. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that they don't have they don't consume a lot of media. So they're not tuned into to what television is doing and what reality television is, they're just not familiar with that.

"It's an obstacle we've encountered elsewhere, where people are more in tune to that language. And they think that when the camera goes on, they have to be a certain way. And the people that we were filming in this film, they just weren't conscious of it from the beginning.

"A lot of the work that we did was creating a situation where, where they could forget about it. It was about taking our time and setting it up and finding the right place to film, where they would be comfortable just sitting or standing for a long period of time. And it felt natural."

Michael Dweck: 'They speak a certain dialect to the dog and they're also, at some point, talking to them about very personal things - about their life, about meeting a woman, things that you see in the film'
Michael Dweck: 'They speak a certain dialect to the dog and they're also, at some point, talking to them about very personal things - about their life, about meeting a woman, things that you see in the film' Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

The aesthetic of the film mirrors the sense of the truffle hunters day-to-day life being timeless in a way, with painters like Carravagio and Titian used as reference points, although the filmmakers say that is all part of the "organic evolution" that happens when they are working on projects together.

Kershaw says: "We didn't go into this film with the idea of these static compositions, it really came after, like, everything in the film, it came from spending time there and just experiencing this place. It feels like no other place that we've been in it. We were like, 'Oh my God, this place and these lives that we're following, it's like a storybook fairy tale'. And that's our perspective.

Dweck adds: "We'd walk into someone's house, and all of a sudden, you'd realise the place is perfect, like, as though the place hasn't been touched. It's been actively lived in, of course, through four or five generations, but it looks like time has stopped. So you see, like Angelo, when he wants to cook a meal. He puts wood into a stove, he takes a pot off the wall that's 150 years old. He needs something from his garden, he pulls out a couple of carrots and then and he's going to go cook chicken. And it seemed to us  almost like Master paintings.

" After that we started to reference Master paintings. We started to see Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, a lot of these were using single light sources, and the very painterly patterns that came from the texture of the stucco walls. And that was how the influence began."

The film, though largely a love letter to the truffle hunters, also touches on the threats to their way of life. Kershaw says: "When you're filming people who live close to the land, and who have a deep daily connection to the land, it seems like climate change almost inevitably has to be a part of the story.

"Carlo, the 88-year-old truffle hunter in the film, talks about when he was a kid that his father would plough the fields and, and truffles would pop up almost like potatoes, they were that plentiful.

"And now finding them, it's like finding gold. I mean, it's nearly impossible to find them - you need a very special dog and a very special knowledge that's being passed down through the generations. And the reason that there are fewer of them is climate change. These white truffles, they can't be cultivated, and they only grow in this particular region. The conditions have to be, you know, just right. The conditions are shifting, and they're becoming less and less common. It's very conceivable that they could just disappear altogether."

Dweck adds: "The first year we were there filming, one truffle hunter said it hadn't rained in a year. That was scary. Then, the winters they were saying it hadn't snowed. Typically before there would be three or four feet of snow in the ground. And the dog could sniff kind of through that. So that came out organically. We didn't have to raise it."

The film, which premiered at Sundance and will be distributed in cinemas by Sony - is currently enjoying a healthy run around global festivals, including San Sebsatian, Zurich and New York. But though the cameras have stopped rolling, Kershaw and Dweck's involvement in the area and commitment to the truffle hunters continues - not least in terms of protecting the land where they work and the animals, which have faced poisoning attacks in recent years.

The Truffle Hunters. Michael Dweck: 'We started to see Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, a lot of these were using single light sources, and the very painterly patterns that came from the texture of the stucco walls. And that was how the influence began'
The Truffle Hunters. Michael Dweck: 'We started to see Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, a lot of these were using single light sources, and the very painterly patterns that came from the texture of the stucco walls. And that was how the influence began'
Dweck says: "We're working with a local trust so that we can both acquire land through this trust so that it can't be deforested, because deforestation became a massive problem there too - because trees don't generate any money but grapes do and because of climate change, areas that were that weren't ideal for for grapes because it was too cold and now becoming more accessible. So the trust we have, we're going to purchase land and we're also supporting a programme where they can train dogs to sniff out poisons. And trying to educate a whole new younger generation of truffle hunters via a school programme, where the truffle hunters and their dogs go to schools and try to get kids to start truffle hunting younger."

This continued to commitment is important to the filmmakers as evidenced by their ongoing work with the stock car race track featured in their previous film The Last Race. Dweck says: "The last project we had, The Last Race, we keep in touch with them, you know, I have another project that's evolved... I created a bunch of art based on that. So that's going to live on forever. We keep in touch with those guys, we try to help them and we we've kept the track alive, which is what the objective film was, because the track was dying, people weren't coming anymore, they wanted to develop that piece of land into a shopping mall. Now the stands are full.

"This project, we think the same thing. We're just going to try to keep supporting them in any way we can, financially and emotionally. And try to keep it alive. They want the same thing. They want the generations to continue. They're frustrated, they're like, 'Why isn't my son doing this? Am I doing this or my daughter doing this?'"

And as soon as they're able, they're planning a screening of the film for the hunters themselves. Kershaw says: "We're going to have a special screening just for them and their friends and family. The town has decided to throw a big party around it. So we can't wait."

The film is playing at Zurich Film Festival tonight and at New York Film Festival on October 5. It is currently slated for US release later this year.

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