| By Michael Fox
The picking season for the coveted matsutake, or pine mushroom, is short but intense. From just after Labor Day through the frosty harbingers of winter in early November, hundreds of commercial harvesters and amateur enthusiasts roam the woods of the Pacific Northwest in search of the prized, pricey fungi concealed under the fallen leaves. Since the 1980s, Cambodian and Laotian immigrants comprise the majority of the migrant foragers. They set up camps, with state permits, that instantly become ad hoc communities for two months.
A camp in the city (population 135, according to the highway sign) and county of Chemult, Ore., isn’t exactly the first place one would look for a young woman with joint master’s degrees in anthropology and international development economics from the London School of Economics. In fact, it was a graduate school lecture where Berkeley native Sara Dosa first learned about the Southeast Asian refugees who converge every year in a forested sliver of the United States to harvest a wild crop that is then sold to top bidders in Japan. A number of aging Vietnam veterans have retreated to the same area, a seemingly unrelated fact that turned out to have powerful relevance for Dosa’s directorial debut.
“The lecture evoked this childhood memory of mushroom hunting, being in the woods, especially the feel of the scavenger hunt where you have to read the clues of the forest and piece together the ecology,” Dosa recalls. “Anthropologically, what interested me the most was the collision of political histories and cultural worldviews as well as global economics that were all playing out in the Oregon woods.”
Dosa, 30, gravitated to documentary filmmaking after graduate school, working as a producer on projects as varied as Jacob Kornbluth and UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich’s socioeconomic essay film Inequality for All and Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa’s wrenching first-person doc Elena. While acquiring experience on other people’s films, Dosa kept an eye and an ear tuned to the matsutake scene. In the summer of 2011, determined to direct her own film, she picked up a camera and headed to Oregon to embark on what would become The Last Season.
This wasn’t a case of an urban white-collar professional fleeing back to nature, mind you. Dosa grew up in North Berkeley, first on Rose Street, and then on Shattuck Avenue around the corner from the teeming center of the so-called Gourmet Ghetto. “I can definitely attribute the almost daily Tilden Park walks my parents took me on throughout my childhood to cultivating a deep love of nature,” Dosa attests.
The issue in Chemult, Dosa quickly realized on that initial exploratory visit, wasn’t acclimating to the outdoors, but ingratiating herself with the Cambodian pickers she wanted to document. Two months later, she was back with a barebones, three-person crew with the goal of embedding themselves in the camp until the snows came.
“The noodle house is the social hub of mushroom camp,” Dosa explains. “We very luckily befriended that family and babysat their kids. It was a way to know them and for them to get to know us. To be present, respectful, and reciprocal. We’d go to the mushroom-buying stations, bring a six-pack, and say we’re making a film, being upfront and sharing stories over a campfire. That led to being invited into homes. We tried to live the mushroom-camp life while acknowledging and being open about our outsider status.”
Access and trust are essential elements of documentary filmmaking, but there’s a risk. The fly-on-the-wall approach can give off a whiff of phoniness, especially in intimate settings where the subjects and the viewer are compelled to pretend to be unaware of the camera’s presence. By insinuating herself into her character’s lives without being remotely intrusive, and by letting her relationship with them occasionally reveal itself on camera, Dosa avoided that pitfall.
The Last Season, which premieres this month at the San Francisco International Film Festival, gradually focuses its attention on three characters in particular: Kuoy Loch, an indefatigable matsutake hunter despite the loss of the lower part of one leg to a land mine as a youthful platoon leader fighting the Khmer Rouge, and late-1950s Southeast Asia “advisor” and sniper Roger Higgins and his wife Theresa. The film takes its time revealing the nature of their connection, although it isn’t giving anything away to say that post-traumatic stress provided painful common ground.
Via an elliptical, mesmerizing approach that draws the viewer deeper and deeper into the misty (literally and figuratively) world of these three people, The Last Season patiently reveals the ongoing effort to create family, meaning, and a responsible, ethical life from the physical and psychological rubble of wartime experience. At the same time, its unwavering evocation of the sounds, feel, and mood of life in the woods, combined with a palpable respect and affinity for Kuoy and Roger and Theresa, steers it well clear of a message film.
“One of the most challenging parts of our process was trying to figure out the structure,” Dosa confides. “We saw it as parallel to digging into the ground, revealing layers of the surface to find the thing you’re looking for underground. Finding family was that thing that both Roger and Kuoy were after, but it’s such a difficult thing to achieve. We wanted to parallel that search with the mushroom hunt. They’re looking for one thing, but they found something else.” Dosa adds with a laugh, “If it’s a film about a search, you can’t give away the thing you’re searching for right away.”
Audiences that turn to documentaries for information (and entertainment, let’s be honest) and want to be told what to think and feel, will have to adjust to The Last Season’s measured sense of pace and place. On the other hand, filmgoers who slip into the groove of its meditative wavelength will be enthralled and touched in ways that most nonfiction doesn’t even approach.
“I’ve personally been drawn to documentaries that create an immersive experience,” Dosa says. “That was always part of my goal, artistically, to create that immersive feeling. It was my idea to create a film that at once was fleeting and had depth. This is the story of one season, so it’s just a glimpse, but hopefully an intimate glimpse. The nature of cinema is it’s 90 minutes or 78 minutes, and it’s over, and therefore fleeting. But [for the duration] you’re surrounded by imagery and a depth.”
The Last Season encapsulates a sliver of life, a poignant crossing of paths, a brief opening in the gloaming. Every day matters—will it rain and stimulate a mushroom growth spurt? Will the price go up or down?—and then, just like that, the fall harvest is over.
The layers of visual and aural detail invite the viewer to contemplate a geographical and anthropological comparison that no one speaks of directly. The Oregon forest is a world away from the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia. The former is defined by peaceful isolation and focused foraging for the matsutake. Kuoy found a new life, and derives his livelihood, in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. The jungles, however still conjure the stuff of nightmares for Roger and Kuoy.
Dosa, who moved back to the Bay Area in 2009 and lives in North Berkeley near the Albany border, would like to see The Last Season used as the centerpiece for an outreach and engagement campaign—ideally in Veterans Affairs centers around the country—about PTSD and mental health care. “I hope the campaign can be a place where we get to discuss in depth the issues the film touches on but doesn’t explore with the complexity that the issue deserves,” she says.
Increasingly, funders (as well as makers) evaluate documentaries by the constituencies they reach and the changes they effect, along with the number of festival bookings and television broadcasts they earn. While Dosa turns her focus to putting The Last Season out in the world, she’s satisfied with the way she handled her first foray at directing a feature-length doc.
“I found that most of the obstacles we came across ended up pushing us to think more creatively in our storytelling and in our production process,” Dosa says. “While we faced some difficult situations, it ultimately led to a better film. When we first got there, people thought we were spies for the government. They were used to spies in their home countries, and they’re highly suspicious of people with cameras. That forced us to really build trust. That’s when we started eating in the noodle house every night.”
So many women have gravitated to the documentary world in recent years—some driven by strong social consciousness, others dismayed by the obstacles to directing narrative films—that it’s fair to ask if there are no longer any gender disadvantages, or advantages.
“That’s a question I will be forever figuring out my entire life,” Dosa says. “It’s challenging for sure, being a young woman in the woods, or in any situation you’re unfamiliar with. Being a young woman always taught me I just have to be that much tougher. People would assume I was an assistant, or that I wouldn’t be able to hike 10 miles in the woods with camera gear.” She notes with a laugh, “It was fun proving people wrong.”
Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic, journalist, teacher, and curator. He has written about film for The Monthly since 1987.
Mushroom hunters (top to bottom): Director Sara Dosa; film subjects Roger Higgins with wife Theresa; film subject Kuoy Loch: Roger Higgins strides through the Oregon forest in his mushroom quest. Film stills courtesy Sara Dosa; Photo of Dosa by Hayden Shiebler.