The Truffle Hunters is a fascinating documentary that recently made the shortlist (top 15 films) for best documentary feature at the upcoming Academy Awards. I had the chance to speak to one of the film’s two directors, Gregory Kershaw, about the project…
Matt: A documentary about elderly men and their dogs searching for rare truffles in Northern Italy. Where did the idea for his first come from?
Gregory: We stumbled on this world by chance. My filmmaking partner Michael Dweck and I were both obsessed with finding worlds that exist outside the sphere of globalisation and technology. Those worlds that had maintained their identity and maintained their connection with local history and culture.
We didn’t realise it at the time but one summer, we were both separately travelling through the Piedmont region in northern Italy. We were struck by the place and it felt like we were moving through a fairy tale land. It’s spectacular. Every hill top has a little town, there are beautiful vineyards, and there’s a sense that it’s removed from the modern world in that it moves at a different rhythm. It hasn’t been taken over by globalised culture.
As part of our time there, we’d heard about these truffle hunters. They were a secret society of old men who scoured forests in the middle of the night for the while Alba truffle – one of the rarest and most expensive food ingredients in the world. Unlike all other types of truffles, this one can’t be cultivated. It’s beyond the grasp of science and human knowledge. There’s something delicious about that idea.
We then decided to go back and explore. Two weeks later, we finished another project we were working on and we started an exploration process that led us into the 3 year process of making this film.
Matt: It’s one thing to have an idea but it’s another to make it work. A lot of the people we see are very secretive about their work and so how easy was it to convince them to appear on film?
Gregory: Everything in this world is a secret. Even the town keeps the identity of the truffle hunters a secret. Before starting filming, we had to go into these communities and build relationships with people. We’d go to a trattoria where they were serving truffles and we’d ask the owner if we could be introduced to the hunter who provided them. He’d say “I’ve never met him. I just leave some money in a box and a truffle appears the next day.” He’d then go “talk to my cousin who a priest” and then the priest would introduce us to someone else and so on.
Slowly, over a very long time, we were finally introduced to the truffle hunters. They hunt at night because they don’t want anyone to see where they’re going. Even the market place where they sell the truffles is a secret. There are black markets on street corners at 3am in the morning that no one knows about.
It took a lot of time to build up those relationships. Luckily, we were filming in a part of Italy where the food is fantastic and the wine is plentiful so we had a lot of long meals with them. We followed the hunters all day and observing the rhythm of their lives and letting them know we loved their world and we wanted to express it on film.
Matt: The conversations between some of these characters feel so open and candid. Was it easy to achieve that given they would have known cameras were on them?
Gregory: Something was different about filming in this region and a lot of it had to do with the lack of technology in the lives of these people. There are so many places in the world were people know what a film is and when you put a camera in front of them, they’re not quite themselves. They start performing and putting on their idea of what it means to be a documentary or reality television show.
The people we were filming don’t watch TV and they don’t have an iPhone in their pocket. They’re not constantly consuming media. It was a remarkable thing. Once we started rolling the camera, they would seem to forget about us almost immediately and would just go about their daily lives.
We shot the film in a very unique way in that it was just one shot per day. That’s unheard of in a documentary. They love to talk in this region and they use a local dialect. We’d just set the camera up and let it roll. Sometimes they’d talk for up to 3 hours where they’d talk about everything going on in their lives. We’d just take a tiny snippet to use in the film that helped tell the story and highlight the magic qualities of this world we’d discovered.
Matt: It’s not often I say this about a documentary but the cinematography is quite striking. Set cameras in precise locations as we watch these characters converse. Can you speak a little about that and how the shots were framed?
Gregory: We wanted to bring a deliberate perspective to the filmmaking. It’s a documentary but we wanted to capture more than just the facts. We wanted to go deeper and find a “subjective truth” and translate the feeling of this place to the audience.
It’s like when you have your phone and you’re just snapping pictures. You can take a photo of some place and use it to remember the fact you were there. For example, it’ll show there was a building there and it’s capturing the “objective truth”. For us, we wanted to create images that felt like the place and took you into them and made you feel the same thing we did.
It took us a lot of time to construct those images but at the same time, we’re filming a documentary so we needed to be free enough to capture reality as it was happening in front of us. That’s part of the reason why the film took 3 years to make. We were so deeply intertwined in the lives of these people that we’d wait until the moment was right before putting a camera in front of them.
Matt: You’ve made the short list for best documentary feature at the Academy Awards and some are tipping the film will receive a nomination. What are your thoughts on that?
Gregory: We hope so and our fingers are crossed. The reception of this film has been astonishing. We premiered it over a year ago at Sundance and we finished it the day for its premiere. Michael and I had seen it with our sound mixer and that was it. We hadn’t shown it to anyone else and so we had no idea what to expect at Sundance. Luckily, we had an incredible reaction from people who connected with it.
The film is a celebration of the human spirit and we wanted to make it because we fell in love with the place and these people. They have a joy, a happiness, an exuberance for life we wanted to share with the audience. This past year has been challenging for so many people in so many different ways and we wanted to give people something to celebrate and show there’s still beauty and hope left in this world.