At their best, documentaries give us a window into a world or profession we usually would not be familiar with. The world of food is a perennial favourite of this, allowing us a direct view into the great kitchens of the world and at the amazing food they produce. There are only so many variations one can take with this theme though, and while enjoyable, they don't often provoke questions or conundrums to us as a viewer, the most mysterious being where this decadent food came from. Food may be a collective human concern, but the human is often what is missing from these kinds of documentaries. This makes 'The Truffle Hunters', from documentary filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw ('The Last Race') all the more a delight and all the more satisfying. This isn't a film of artisan kitchens and guilt-free privilege, but a film of dirt and mud, of dedication and tradition, of deep and passionate love, and of the collision between integrity and greed.
Dweck and Kershaw's camera follows a small group of truffle hunters and their trusted dogs, men in their 70s and 80s dedicated to hunting the forests of Northern Italy for the rare Alba truffle, a white variety of the prized fruit of a fungus that grows deep in the ground. Their methods are rooted in tradition passed down the generations, including the relationships with their dogs, trained to sniff out these delicacies. These truffles cannot be cultivated, only found, and this makes them rare and desired. As the demand has intensified and the truffles have become more scarce and more sought-after, the world of truffle hunting for these men has started to shift in disappointing and often dangerous directions, and they each must contend with the potential loss of their lifestyle, their dignity, and their legacy.
'The Truffle Hunters' does not follow the traditional structure of a standard documentary, or even the visual language. Rather than following a narrative thread, it moves between these men - as well as the other figures they meet in the selling of their truffles - with an emotional logic, complementing and contrasting their stories when feels necessary. There are no talking heads or interviews, choosing instead to capture the immediacy of their lives and small private moments, but it doesn't do so with the language of a handheld camera. Dweck and Kershaw's photography is carefully and beautifully composed with a cinematic eye, and though this would risk an artificiality in lesser hands, here it adds a dignity and beauty to these men, their families and their kingdoms. Within the careful framing is spontaneity and irreverent joy, a beautiful self-consciousness mixed with tremendous pride. These men have lived full and rich lives, and the aim of the camera is to observe, preserve and celebrate with them. There's a mistaken belief that the best documentarians are those which make themselves or their biases invisible, but it is impossible for any artist to be entirely objective. The love and admiration that Dweck and Kershaw clearly have for their subjects is ultimately what elevates the film into the magical and drives them to more imaginative, whimsical and thrilling approaches in their storytelling.
The beautiful, soulful tension of the film rests on the truffles themselves. The film moves through three different worlds, all of them defined by the truffle but in different ways. For the buyers and sellers, they are a commodity, their value entirely monetary and, in many ways, impersonal. There's a remarkable moment where one man talks to his young daughter, remarking that even though he sells thousands and thousands of euros' worth every week, he never has time to actually eat a truffle. For the consumers, they are a sacred object, a way to touch the divine through food, and every slither of the truffle touching their tongue is a profound event. For the hunters though, they are a means to an end - that end being not just a financial livelihood but the basis for their most important relationships. For all the men, the wellbeing and safety of their dogs is paramount, whether that be from the threats posed to them by cruel traps and baiting from rival hunters, or the question of what will happen to their beloved dogs when they are gone. The love these men have for their dogs is the most moving aspect of 'The Truffle Hunters'; their care and devotion, and the devastation when anything happens to them. It sits in beautiful contrast to the pomp and circumstance to the treatment of the fruits from the ground they find that to them are a celebration of the hard work and cleverness of their dogs, but which will eventually sit on velvet cushions. Truffle hunting is an art, but it is a collaborative art between a hunter and their dog, and the camaraderie that exists between these men is born out of a collective belief in this collaboration. Their joy is in the hunt, and in those they hunt with.
Within the careful framing is spontaneity and irreverent joy, a beautiful self-consciousness mixed with tremendous pride.
It would have been easy for 'The Truffle Hunters' to just be a feel-good special interest documentary, and if that was all it wished to be, it would succeed with flying colours. There's so much warmth to this film, linked directly to these charming, passionate and direct Italian men who wear their age on their shoulders - not as a burden, but a cloak of pride. Running underneath the film though is a seam of melancholy, the collision between tradition and capitalism. These men may be paid a few hundreds euros for a truffle that will eventually be sold for tens of thousands of euros, money they will never see. This never worries them; they are content in their lives and never express dissatisfaction in this injustice. Their livelihoods come second to the need for more product, and a thread of antagonism and criminality that has crept into their profession that some battle against and some are crushed under. The beauty of Dweck and Kershaw's approach is that they are far more committed to capturing and preserving this dying world under threat, a respect you cannot help but feel isn't being afforded to them by those who rely so heavily on them.
There's a special alchemy to 'The Truffle Hunters' - a beautiful marriage of subject, form and intention that make it such an uplifting, entertaining and generous experience. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw have so much love for these men, their world and their dogs, and share that love with us, daring us not to be charmed by what we see. 'The Truffle Hunters' is a gorgeous film, one that leaves you with a profound sense of the beauty of time, tradition and integrity, and the importance of preserving them.