Originally posted on August 31, 2015
by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
In The Last Season, documentary filmmaker Sara Dosa and her crew introduce us to the world of matsutake mushroom hunting near the tiny town of Chemult, Oregon (see trailer below). The autumnal ritual draws hundreds of matsutake hunters, most of them immigrants from Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, and they hunt this mushroom for export to the high-end markets of Japan. Matsutake have long been a prized delicacy in Japanese cuisine. The Pacific Northwest mushroom is a close relative of the Japanese matsutake, literally “pine mushroom.” In Japan, they form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of Japanese red pine. When a blight hit these Japanese pines in the last quarter of the Twentieth century, people began to look for a good source of matsutake elsewhere. The closest match in taste and texture is that found in the coniferous forests of southern Oregon. A “gold rush” of sorts hit the region around Chemult, OR in the late 1980s, with matsutake mushrooms going for up to $600 per pound before stabilizing around $20-40 per pound for pickers. Immigrants from southeast Asia became the community drawn to this seasonal opportunity, often due at least in part to their experiences during the Vietnam War, foraging in the forests for mushrooms and other food for survival.
Through the eyes of two mushroom hunters, Kouy Loch and Roger Higgins, this award-winning film explores not only the ups and downs of a matsutake season, but the brokenness, economic uncertainty, and opportunities for healing present in those who experienced both sides of the Vietnam War. Viewers are introduced to the unlikely family of Roger Higgins, Kouy Loch, and Higgins’ wife Theresa, the ways they each deal with war-induced post traumatic stress, and how mushroom hunting in a Pacific Northwest forest helps them heal. The matsutake mushroom holds the literal and symbolic thematic center of the story, representing death, transformation, connection, symbiosis, partnership, and the opportunity for new life.
The filmmakers follow Kouy and Roger through the matsutake season’s booms and busts. The two have hunted mushrooms together for many seasons, but they predict this one will be Roger’s last. His health is deteriorating, and he cannot go with Kouy most days. Though the filmmakers did not expect this situation when they set out to make the film, this provides the opportunity for Kouy, Roger, and Theresa to reflect on life, death, the war, family, and the unexpected twists and turns of existence with a poignancy that may not have been present had the film been made a few years earlier.
We wanted to learn more about the making of this film, so we spoke with Sara Dosa, the film’s director. Dosa is a cultural anthropology graduate student turned documentary filmmaker, who sees connections between ethnography and documentary filmmaking. The filmmaker and anthropologist both spend time with their subjects, observing deeply and building strong networks of trust. She applies her ethnographic skills to this project and lets the viewer in on the sociocultural world of these mushroom hunters, showing how meaning is being made, and assisting in making meaning through the making of this film.
Whole Terrain: How did you come across this story, and what drew you to make a documentary about it?
Sara Dosa: When I was studying cultural anthropology, a visiting professor, Anna Tsing, gave a lecture about the changing relationships of labor and global capitalism. She told us about a case study of Oregon mushroom hunters. I was completely enthralled with how a lot of the pickers were immigrants from Southeast Asia, even though many others were veterans of the war there. I thought, “Wow, what about a fabulous mixture of people, with a shared history of war, who are now out in the Oregon wilderness hunting this mushroom.
Years later, I tracked down Professor Tsing and told her I have been working as a filmmaker, and was interested in making a film about the matsutake. She got excited and shared some of her contacts.
I first met Roger and Theresa, serendipitously. On one of my first scout trips we tried to make contact with Kouy by asking at the ranger station. In the background there was a silver haired woman who was putting some files away. When I asked the ranger about Kouy Loch, and if she knew how to get ahold of him, the woman popped up in the background and said, “Oh, that’s my son!” It’s not every day in rural Oregon that a white woman would say that a Cambodian guy is her son. This was Theresa. She told us about her husband, Roger, who spoke fluent Khmer because of his training in Vietnam. When people started coming to hunt mushrooms he built relationships with them, and he made a deeper bond with Kouy. In Cambodia, they have a fairly common tradition of making your own family because of all the genocide and war there. Roger understood this cultural tradition, and that’s how this “family” started.
Theresa was telling us this story and we were just wide-eyed: this is exactly the kind of story we were looking for. It fit with the metaphor we had envisioned of the underground connections that you don’t see on the surface, an unexpected connection with the ecology of mushrooms.
Kouy was so busy during mushroom hunting season. He didn’t want us to slow him down, and didn’t want us to reveal where the mushroom patches were. We had to be very careful to convince him that we aren’t going to expose this. Building trust, we started to work together. He also wanted to create a record for his daughter. Since he never got to see her during matsutake season, he wanted her to be able to see how he was sacrificing for her, what he did when he went away, as a gift to her.
WT: Can you give us your take on the geopolitical parts of this story, that seasonal workers from Southeast Asia are harvesting a mushroom to send to elite Japanese buyers, our enemies in World War II and Vietnam, and a Vietnam veteran in a similar economic situation to the seasonal workers? What are the implications of this story for you?
SD: I was interested in seeing how different people could come together from different sides of the conflict, and also the story of healing. From what I’d seen and read, I’d hoped this could be sort of an anti-war film. Roger and Kouy’s relationship was a poignant and meaningful way of showing how people can heal in the wake of such horrific violence. This story also shows how interconnected our globe is. These men grew up in rural Oregon and Cambodia, and yet they’re now hunting mushrooms together.
I was left very moved by how people make meaning together despite geography, politics, and the horrific trauma they endure, and find day-to-day ways to make the world less bleak. There’s tremendous racism, even in rural Oregon. I hope this film can show how a community of Southeast Asian immigrants can come together in rural Oregon and recreate a sense of home.
WT: Our journal focuses on reflective environmental practice. Do you consider your filmmaking an “environmental practice”? If so, in what ways? What were you hoping to communicate, environmentally speaking, through the making of this film?
SD: I’m very much an environmentalist at heart. One of the goals of the film was to show the world of the forest, the interconnectivity of the forest. It’s a precarious landscape. You need the mycelia of the mushrooms to sustain the trees, and vice versa, and all of this is sustaining a community of life.
There’s a point of balance between this community of mushroom hunters and the woods. Kouy, as he digs up matsutake, re-buries the mycelia. He’s protecting the roots. He’s worried that if too many people pick the mushrooms, it will kill the forest. He’s an environmentalist in his day-to-day life. For him and for Roger, the forest is their place of solitude and sanctuary. During the war it helped them survive, by foraging, hiding from enemies, and so forth. When they came to the States, their trauma was so severe that the forest was the place where they could find sanctuary.
I guess in some way the film shows the array of cultural meaning the forest can play aside from just the point of taking care of the landscape.
WT: What were some of your favorite moments in the making of this film?
SD: There were so many! I really loved it. I loved just going over to Roger’s house. His health was really declining, so we’d go and check in with him and hear his stories. He was just a hilariously cantankerous and funny storyteller.
Also, the Boun Khao Pah: in Lao it means the “blessing of the woods.” It starts off with a Buddhist ceremony and becomes a big party about the forest bringing life. It was meaningful for us to see Kouy having a good time at this celebration. He’s such a serious man, deeply philosophical, working so hard to make ends meet and provide for his daughter. To see him laugh and have fun with people and socialize with people other than his family was really fun. It was a great adventure.
WT: What were some of the most difficult moments?
SD: It was difficult witnessing Roger’s health decline. He’s such a strong man, and it was clear that he was really grappling with mortality, but through his philosophical and darkly humorous way. That was quite emotionally challenging. It was also hard to talk with him about his experience in war, because his PTSD was really present. We were triggering him and had to be very responsible for what that does to a person. He wanted to go there with us, even though he knew it would trigger flashbacks. We dealt with the ethical dilemma of that as a crew. I’m grateful that we had built a strong relationship of trust with him, and we were always talking about it, so that helped to ease the situation.
During the filming, it was hard that there weren’t many mushrooms that year. That’s always a risk of following a story like this. We decided we just had to cover what’s in front of us, and right now the drought is what’s in front of us.
WT: Where did you think this story was going when you started it, and how did its development surprise you?
SD: After meeting with Roger and Kouy we knew that they would be the heart of the film. We wanted to follow them deeply for a whole season, but we didn’t know what we would get. The thing that surprised us most was the depth and complexity of their relationship. To actually see it was very moving. Their relationship never seemed contrived. They see themselves as stoic cowboys, but they still have meaningful relationships and emotions.
We filmed with a handful of other people, such as a family that originally came from Laos. Initially we thought we would weave them in because of the geopolitical angles, but they didn’t end up really being in the final film. Everyone in that family was so welcoming and wonderful! We didn’t anticipate getting close with them as well.
We also didn’t realize just how much Roger was dealing with his own impending death. That came out the farther we got through the film: seasons turning, life and death, the cycle of the mushroom alongside the cycle of life and war. I didn’t anticipate making such a sad film. I hope that there’s enough hope there still.
Though Dosa worries about not infusing the film with enough hope, the viewer encounters a hope-filled story: the power of reflection, relationship, solitude, and working within the natural rhythms of interwoven forest life. The Last Season offers a glimpse of recovery and reconciliation after one of the worst experiences human beings put one another through: war. Perhaps this story could happen in a factory or office, but the symbiotic relationship between the mushroom and the pine tree creates a metaphor of much more power, a cycle that will continue in some form whether or not human beings work out our differences with one another. Educational institutions and community groups can purchase or stream The Last Season through First Run Features. It will air on PBS in the coming year.