Berkeley, CA-based director Sara Dosa first came across the subject of seasonal matsutake mushroom hunters in a cultural anthropology class. When she learned that the migrant workers mostly comprised of Southeast Asian refugees, it piqued her interest. In addition, Oregon also has a large population of American Vietnam war veterans, some of whom are also mushroom pickers. These groups have a few things in common, including being war veterans and finding solace—and a source of income—in the Oregon woods.
Shot on location in Chemult, Oregon, Dosa spent three months embedded in the tight-knit community of mushroom pickers to direct her first documentary, The Last Season. Among the makeshift tent city, she finds an incredible story of a pair of mushroom hunters: Kouy Loch, a former Cambodian soldier, and Roger Higgins, an aging Vietnam War veteran.
Dosa, who is of Italian and Eastern European Jewish descent, talks about what it was like living and making a film in the woods, her background in cultural anthropology, and the very rare and valuable matsutake mushrooms. Her film airs on The World Channel on Tuesday, May 31th.
On embedding herself in the mushroom picking community
The world of the Oregon mushroom hungers is a pretty tight-knit, off-the-grid community and people talk about their mushroom patches as their bank account. It’s their source of income. You’re not just going to open up your bank account to show people your numbers, you know? We really had to work hard to build trust. We did so just by being as present and embedded in the community as much as possible. For example, there’s this place called the Noodle House, which is at the heart of the pop-up mushroom hunting community. Basically, this tent city pops up at the beginning of September, and then at the beginning of November with the snowfall, everyone leaves for the next mushroom harvest. The Noodle House is the social hub of the camp. People eat there—they serve the best pho and fried rice you can ever imagine. It’s a very lively, fun, makeshift restaurant in the middle of the woods.
We started going there all the time and being upfront about who we were and what we were doing. We started to make friends with the family that ran the Noodle House. We’d help with babysitting, chores, and clean up after a party. We ended up gaining the trust with a lot of people. From there, we were able to shoot. It was not easy at first.
When you were there, did you try the matsutake mushrooms?
Yeah. It’s super expensive—you know, it’s peoples’ income so it’s not like we were eating it all the time. But especially the lower grade matsutake mushrooms, if they were not going to sell them, they’d give them to us and we’d cook them up or people would cook them up for us. They’re very good—they have a very potent taste and a very potent smell. I have very positive associations with them. I freak out when I see matsutake mushrooms on a menu now.
Where’s the market for matsutakes?
The market is almost exclusively in Japan. During the day, the mushroom pickers pick as many matsutake mushrooms as they can. In the late afternoon, they sell them to buyers that are all on the outskirts of mushroom camp. Those buyers clean them and pack them up and ship them to Portland. There are a couple steps in between but essentially they get shipped directly to Japan overnight. They can sell for hundreds of dollars a pound there if they’re the highest grade. There are a couple of places in the states that will buy them—Far West Fungi in the Ferry Building in San Francisco and Berkeley Bowl in Berkeley are two places where they’re sold in the U.S. but only during the season. They’re very rare in other places in the states.
Can you talk about your background—how you became a filmmaker?
Actually, I grew up thinking I was probably going to be a Professor of Cultural Anthropology. That’s what my mom is. I was always fascinated by the questions that cultural anthropology equips one with as well as the ethnographic methods—really being embedded in communities and learning about a world that you wouldn’t otherwise get to know. But in college, I was very passionate about economic justice issues. In my students for economic justice student group, they showed a film called Life and Debt. It so powerfully humanized this seemingly anonymous concept of the economy and free trade, in a way that moved me. I thought, “Oh wow, I can explore issues of the economy and anthropology but through this beautifully creative artistic means.” In that moment, I thought, I want to make documentary films. Ten years later, I’m doing my thing (laughs).
That’s cool. Is there anything else you want to add about yourself or filmmaking?
Filmmaking is so hard but I’m so passionate about it. There’s absolutely no way me or other filmmakers can make films without partnerships with institutions like CAAM. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m kissing up (laughs). You guys are a tremendous support, not just screening my film at CAAMFest but you guys funded us. That makes a world of difference. I’m really grateful to be a part of the “CAAM community” and also in the Bay Area where there’s a thriving network of really inspiring documentary filmmakers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Last Season premieres Tuesday, May 31 on AmericaReFramed.