The Truffle Hunters open with a beautiful, contemplative long shot – a steep, densely forested north-west Italian hill accented by the yellowed leaves and skeletal branches of its trees – that sets the tone for what is to come. In the lower part of the frame, a person slowly emerges from the forest accompanied by a dog. It is clear that the year is coming to an end, that cold and snow are coming – a fitting metaphor for the line of passage that defines this documentary. As a meditation on a group of elderly men and their devoted dogs engaged in an ancient activity that can be doomed by modern life as well as climate change, it has been recognized by the Directors Guild of America and the American, among others Society of Cinematographers honored.
Filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw mix footage of the search for the Alba truffle with intimate scenes of domestic life, calm examples of the deep bond dogs and their people share. Read on for insights into how the documentary was made, their motivations, and of course the dogs, and read our review here.
Bark: You described the region in which the film is set as a fairy tale kingdom that remains untouched by time and modernity. How did you find it, how did you come up with it and why did you choose this arcane, mysterious activity?
Michael Dweck: We had finished the last race [a Sundance documentary depicting the Long Island birthplace of stock car racing] and needed a break, a place to go in August. I went to a small village in northern Italy; Gregory had happened to be in this exact place three weeks earlier, although I did not know it.
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We were asked, “Why aren’t you here in November?” or in other words, during the truffle season. When we wanted to find out where the truffles came from, a shopkeeper said to me: “I only know that I put 50 euros in this little wooden box and the next morning a white truffle appears in the box.”
We were addicted. We realized that there was a secret in these hills that we needed to find out. We are interested in traditional communities, and this one was very magical. We went back and forth for three years; The first year was spent letting the truffle hunters and their community know who we were.
In their homes we were taken back in time. We watched how they lived, what they had for dinner, how and when they prepared to look for truffles. We set up the camera, framed it beautifully, and let it run for a couple of hours. Sometimes we only shot once a day and waited for the right light.
Gregory Kershaw: One of the things that we’ve stuck to as documentary filmmakers is that it’s a lot about capturing a feeling – how do we translate that into a cinematic experience? For The Truffle Hunters, before we had our characters, before we knew what the story was, there was this feeling that we were talking about and how we could translate it into a cinematic experience. That was the nice thing about shooting over three years. We thought a lot about how we shot it and found a way to capture it that would allow us to disappear as filmmakers, to give the people we filmed a space where they can move around and be comfortable can. After a while they would forget about us and go about their lives.
Bk: Did it take a lot of persuasion to get the hunters to trust you?
GK: When we first heard about these truffle hunters, it was in a whisper. Once we met the real truffle hunters [as opposed to the people who take tourists out to find planted truffles]We also had to build this trust. These guys are keeping this incredible secret – truffles are worth almost as much as gold per ounce. They have knowledge that they only share with their dogs, knowledge that it took a lifetime or maybe generations to gain.
It took a long time to build trust in this community – it was a process of entering that community that took about a year. It was two years before we saw where they found the real truffles.
MD: We had to pay our fees in the forest. They slowly let us in; Eventually we were told, “I’m going to eat truffles. You can follow me if you want. “The first time we went out it was down a canyon that was probably 2,000 feet high on a vertical drop, and we carried tripods and a really heavy camera. It was muddy and raining and we slide around. But we kept coming back – we were in three feet of snow, we were in the mud … they run sometimes at night, up to 15 to 20 miles in the dark.
Bk: The dogs seem to be a variety of breeds and mixes. How do men determine which puppy is a good truffle hound? How do you train them?
MD / GK: There is one scene where the film was not made and where we were following the life cycle of a dog. You rub a truffle on the mother’s belly, and you can see which of the pups is interested in the smell and taste of the truffle. Eventually you will see that three or four of the wastes have potential. Then they start training the pups, which starts with gorgonzola cheese in a mug, and let them follow in the tall grass. It takes up to three years for a dog to be trained.
These dogs are there for fun – I mean, they are like their children. They are not working animals, they are part of every man’s family. Some of the dogs – for example Aurelios Birba * – eat on the table with their partner. The men are very affectionate towards their dogs, like Sergio bathing his dog after spending all night in the mud. Sometimes the men purposely hide truffles that their dogs can find just for the sake of enjoying them.
When you are in the forest and the dog is digging, you can smell the truffles. One of the dogs, if its tail wags a lot, it is a large truffle. If it wags a little, it’s a little. Anglelos dog is sitting on a truffle. When digging, they stop and smell the ground because it tells them whether the truffle is ripe or not. If not, come back on another trip and check again. The dog remembers these places year after year.
Bk: There must have been a lot of scenes of the dogs that didn’t make it into the last film. Does anyone really stand out?
MD / GK: The dog camera footage! We shot countless hours of it. We’d put the camera on the dog, turn it on, and then the truffle hunter and dog would just leave. They would be outside and in vehicles for hours and the camera would be rolling all the time. The footage was just amazing. When you see it, you are immediately in the dog’s head. It transports you into the visceral intensity, the thrill of the hunt, the excitement of digging up a truffle.
It was also a window into this really complex relationship that truffle hunters have with their dogs. This footage first made it clear to us that the men’s conversations with their dogs were not about giving orders to the dogs. You only talk to them, too.
We learned that each of the truffle hunters and their dogs have their own language. We heard words that we didn’t recognize and that our translator, who speaks the local Piedmontese dialect, didn’t know either. We asked the truffle hunters about it and they said these were words they had developed over time. After spending 12 hours night after night alone with their dogs in the forest, they came up with their own common language. This footage gave us a glimpse into the relationships, which in turn allowed us to ponder some of the other footage we were shooting.
Bk: Did the dog cam footage have any other surprises?
MD / GK: There could probably be an entire movie with this footage; it goes on for hours. There are hundreds of moments when the dogs interact with nature, many of them are really incredibly beautiful.
As we went through the footage, we found that sometimes the dog ran, ran, ran, ran, ran, then stopped and looked at the sky – smelled and looked – then ran, ran, ran again. We didn’t know what was going on but we were later told it was the dog’s way of decompressing. We learned quite a bit about dogs from watching this footage.
Bk: Speaking of dog cameras – how did that come about?
GK: We started off with some kind of high tech approach but ended up working with a local Italian old school shoemaker who helped us make a small leather harness with a GoPro mount for the dog’s head that would be comfortable for the dog Dog. Each had to be adapted to the individual dog. We did this because it was important not only to capture the relationship between humans and dogs, but also to capture the dog’s amusement as they crossed the forest in search of a truffle. In a way, this amusement is a substitute for the truffle hunter.
MD: We also had many microphones that we developed with our sound engineer – tiny miniature microphones that we placed on the dog’s body and recorded the unique sounds of the forest and the dogs breathing, digging and so on.
Bk: Did the men and their families see the film?
MD: We had a big event planned for them in Turin – the dogs and their partners were there – and another screening in their city’s 1930s cinema … a full day block party with food. However, the pandemic had an impact on timing.
GK: We showed them little pieces and they know what they do matters. Not in a pompous way, but they understand how the world is changing and how special what they have is. They were thrilled that we helped keep that going.
Left to Right: Gregory Kershaw; Michael Dweck
Epilogue: The Truffle Hunter Land Conservation Program
The truffle hunters were shot in the Italian Piedmont at the foot of the western Alps. Climate change makes it possible to grow the grapes from which the well-known (and high-priced) wines of the region are made at higher altitudes. The land overgrown with old oaks is being cut down so that more vines can be planted. Since Alba truffles only grow in connection with the roots of these hardwoods, the truffle hunters’ way of life is constantly threatened.
To help, filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw created the Truffle Hunters Land Conservation Program to raise funds for Piedmont-based grassroots conservation organizations founded and run by truffle hunters. These organizations are committed to the conservation and protection of the truffle forests and support the truffle hunting community in general.
* Unfortunately Aurelio passed away in autumn 2020. His legacy lives on with Birba and his two other dogs. An article on La Cucina Italiana.com states: “All three are well looked after by the mayor of his village and have withdrawn from truffle hunting following Aurelio’s specific instructions. “They are really happy,” says Dweck. He and Kershaw are in close contact with their new owner, who sends multiple video updates of the dogs every week. “