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'The Truffle Hunters' Tells The Story Of Men And Dogs Searching For Culinary Gold

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"The Truffle Hunters" is a slice of life from a place on Earth that's as hilly and lovely as a fairy tale kingdom and unusual more than ever in our times. Dogs and men - in fact, aged dogs and old men - sniffing out, hunting for white Alba truffles in the woods of Piedmont, Italy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Italian).

SIMON: There are no battles, but some price negotiations - no superheroes, except maybe the dogs. "The Truffle Hunters" has been a selection at Sundance, Cannes and Telluride and acclaimed by David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter as a constant feast for the eyes and nourishment for the soul. It opens this week in some cinemas that are open and was directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, who both join us, one in New York, the other in Stockholm.

Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL DWECK: It's an honor to be here. Thank you, Scott.

GREGORY KERSHAW: Thank you. I love that introduction.

SIMON: Well, then, let's begin with you then, Mr. Kershaw.

How did you see this world and want to tell us about it?

KERSHAW: Well, we actually came across this world, I would say, by chance. Michael and I, we'd finished another project that we had been working on for five years, a film called "The Last Race." And we were both traveling separately, and we ended up in the same region just a few weeks apart from each other. And we didn't realize it at the time, but it was this region in Italy. And we were talking about our trip to this region in Piedmont. And we were in some of the same towns, and we were enchanted by it. And we had heard this mystery of these old men that go into the woods with their dogs in the middle of the night searching for the world's rarest and most expensive ingredient, the white Alba truffle. And we were intrigued. So we traveled back there, and we started exploring. We had no idea what we were going to find, but that started a three-year process of making this film.

SIMON: Michael Dweck, were the truffle hunting people themselves - the dogs, for that matter - ever reluctant about having you along?

DWECK: (Laughter) No, the dogs were great. I mean, we - at one point, we thought, well, how great would it be to see the point of view of the dog during the hunt? Because the dogs seemed to be a lot more excited sometimes than the truffle hunters - well, the truffle hunters, of course, are between 80 and 90 years old - and they had quite a bit of energy. So we decided to, you know, strap a GoPro on the head of a dog and see what that was like for an audience. And what we found, to our surprise, was the truffle hunters seemingly having conversations with their dogs...

SIMON: Yeah.

DWECK: ...That they were - that were talking about things like, I'm going to make you a special dinner for Christmas; I might be going away and not coming back, and I want to find someone to take care of you. So they were very personal conversations, and that led us to be invited into their home. So we learned at that point the unique relationships that they had between truffle hunters and their partners.

SIMON: And it's a wonderful thing to see, that special intimacy. There is a kind of - there's a sad note in the narrative that develops, though, because Birba's - I can't say owner - Birba's truffle hunting partner senses that he could depart this earth before Birba. And he wants to look out for Birba. It's very moving.

KERSHAW: When we first encountered this place and we first encountered the truffle hunters, it - we were immediately struck by how fragile this world seemed. And most of the men that we were filming with, they were in between 80 and 90 years old. Carlo's 89. And they're really the last people that are carrying on this tradition. And we felt an urgency to capture the way that they live, the way that they truffle hunt and just the way that they interact with the world around them.

SIMON: There are scenes in this film - you know, you look from dog to man, man to dog, the man sipping wine grow not far from his feet, the dog on top of the table slurping food that comes not far from his paws. And you sense a closeness they have with each other and an involvement in life that is utterly beautiful. I wonder, what do you take back from them, the truffle hunters and their canine companions into your minds and hearts?

DWECK: Gregory and I both come from cities, and we both rely on technology quite a bit in our lives. And when you step into a world like this that seems to be a pre-digital world, it's refreshing. You know, technology has, of course, brought as many great things, but it's also robbed cultures of their soul in some cases. Once it seeps in, it's very difficult to go on without it. But I think for us, we question where our food supply comes from because, like you were saying, they do - they're self-sufficient. They're all farmers during the day and truffle hunters at night. This has been going on for hundreds of years.

And for us, it's so joyful to be there. We couldn't wait to get back there because these people - they live very humble lives with no technology. They don't have computers. They don't have smartphones. But they have joy in their lives, and they're content. And they have a closeness to nature and a closeness to animals that we think is one of the reasons why they celebrate this life.

SIMON: Gregory Kershaw, I wonder what you take back from the people you spent time with in Piedmont.

KERSHAW: It's - this community, they've held on to things that are very simple and seem very obvious. Nature - they've held on to the relationship with nature. They've held on to their relationship with their physical community. They've held on to their relationship with animals. And when you live in a city, when you live a life that is a modern life with all the technological trappings that come with it, you don't realize that, I think, those things have been taken away from us. They've been taken away from us very slowly, so slowly that we don't even realize that we're missing them. But when you're in a place that has maintained those connections, you realize what that does for human life. And you realize, you know, that it might not just be a luxury to have a relationship with nature, but it may be there's something essential about that for human life.

SIMON: Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, who have directed, composed really, "The Truffle Hunters" in theaters now. Thank you so much for being with us.

KERSHAW: Thank you, Scott.

DWECK: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIOVANNI SOLLIMA'S "AQUILARCO NO. 7 (ROTATING DANCE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.