SFIFF57: Sara Dosa Talks Mushroom Hunting, ‘The Last Season’
Sara Dosa’s debut feature, The Last Season, which screens today at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas as part of SFIFF57, is a multi-layered story about Kouy Loch, a Cambodian immigrant who resisted the Khmer Rouge, and Roger Higgins, a Vietnam vet. The former soldiers, traumatized by memories of war, find in each other the kinship they’d been searching for for years, healing one another through the power of empathy, companionship, and love. They quite literally forged a father-son relationship–Kouy was adopted in spirit by the hard-ass old-timer and his wife Theresa as their own son–forming a wholly unique, unbreakable family bond.
What brought them together you ask? The rare mushrooms, of course! Every fall, Southeast Asian immigrants convene in Chemult, Oregon to hunt for matsutake mushrooms, considered a fine delicacy in Japan. (They pay ridiculously high prices for them, making matsutake hunting quite the lucrative endeavor.) Each season, the seasonal workers erect a tent community they call “Mushroom City”, which is where Kouy and Higgins met. Dosa’s film is as complex, strange, and unique as it sounds, a film as rare and precious as the fist-sized fungi the hunters pluck from the soil.
During SFIFF57, we spoke with Dosa about the beauty of mushroom hunting, stumbling upon Kouy and Roger’s story, being frightened by Roger during their first interview, screening the film in front of her hometown, and more.
The Last Season screens today, May 5th, at 3:30pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
You’re a mushroom hunter yourself, correct?
Sara: I am! I’d say I’m very much an amateur, nowhere close to the mushroom hunters who were featured in my film. I go out every once in a while to hunt mushrooms, and it’s very enjoyable and addicting as well.
What’s special about mushroom hunting? What made you fall in love with it?
Sara: I think it’s twofold. For the people in my film, there’s definitely a love and enjoyment, but it’s also a love of labor. It’s how they make a living. For me, it’s all about discerning the relationship of the forest. You have to understand how the sky relates to the ground, or how the trees and soil interact. There are all these little pieces that have to come together, and it’s only at the right moment of interaction between all of these elements that a mushroom can be produced. I think there’s something so lovely about it from a metaphoric standpoint, but it also creates a treasure hunt feel. I think it’s really fun! It attunes your brain to the little details of the world around you.
How much fun was it to shoot these experienced hunters working in their element?
Sara: It was amazing! First of all, it was so generous of people to invite us into their worlds. For example, Kouy, my protagonist…he moves fast in the woods. We definitely slowed him down. (laughs) We embedded ourselves as much as possible. We really lived in the mushroom camp for the entire season. I can easily say it was the most meaningful experience of my life. I really loved it.
The film is about mushroom hunting, but it’s more about your protagonists and this remarkable family dynamic they’ve forged together. How did you come across them and their story?
Sara: When I met Kouy and Roger, this idea of unexpected interconnections made everything really click. You have all of these disparate elements: You have the the demand from Japan for this commodity, war in Southeast Asia, the ecology of mushrooms, family. Through the lens of unexpected interconnections, all of those things can become woven together. That’s what excited me most. Their story was about them and their relationship and could also be extrapolated to be much more.
When you set out to make the film, I imagine you weren’t expecting to find such a layered family story. Was it a surprise?
Sara: Yeah, it definitely was. We went in knowing that there would be stories everywhere, because it’s such a rich world. It’s so rare that you find Vietnam vets, immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand living together, all with a shared history of war in Southeast Asia. We knew that there would be something interesting there. When I met Kouy, I was struck by the way he spoke about his family. He was calling Roger dad, and he made this joke. He was describing one of Roger’s war injuries and one of his own war injuries, and he said, “We’re both made of metal. We’re like father like son!” He started chuckling. I thought…that’s profound. They’re not biologically related, but there’s this bond there. The language that he uses to fuse their family relationship is a language of war. We were still in the process of filming many, many different story lines, but theirs always stood out as so powerful. Through the editing process, it kind of rose to the forefront of what we wanted to focus on.
Kouy and Theresa’s relationship is beautiful as well. You can tell that he relishes the fact that he can call her mom–he does it constantly. What was it like being around them in their home, sharing such a unique familial bond?
Sara: I loved it. I feel so grateful that I come from such an incredibly close family, so when I see families that are close, whether by blood or through a newly created kinship, I can’t help but feel a connection. Theresa is one of the strongest, most hilarious, kindest, and most surprising people I’ve ever met in my life. They were so inviting! It’s not every day that four twenty-thirty-somethings knock on your door and want to make a movie in your living room. They were gracious. It was very touching to see the love between Kouy and Theresa. And Roger as well, in his own stoic, cowboy way.
There are some interesting twists and turns in the movie, reveals about Kouy and Roger’s life that change the way we view them. What was it like structuring the movie, choosing when to reveal these bits of information about their lives?
Sara: From the very beginning, we wanted to focus on one season and have it contain the arc. Secondarily, we wanted it to be what we termed a “reveal structure”–you learn the most surprising things later on in the film. I think it’s really common to front-load films with all you need to know about the characters, and then the story follows. For us, the story is the reveal. You slowly unravel the layers, as if you’re digging into the soil, looking for a mushroom. It’s kind of a content-meets-form thing we were going for. Our film is about a search first and foremost, so we wanted our structure to really reflect that.
You capture the atmosphere of Oregon and the misty, forested surroundings very well. How important was it for you to bottle the aura of that place?
Sara: That was one of the things going into the film that was first and foremost. I love films where you feel immersed in a sense of place. Also, once you get to Oregon, you can’t help but be struck by the landscape. And it’s not just a gorgeous backdrop: for our characters, the woods is the site of war. It’s where they survived the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnam war, but now it’s turned into the site of their new life and their livelihood. it was very important to have the landscape featured prominently in the storytelling itself.
The making of documentaries are often about happy accidents, these unexpected moments that you’re fortunate enough to be there to film it. Can you remember an instance where you felt lucky to have gotten such a surprising, golden moment captured on film?
Sara: Sure! The first one that comes to mind is our very first interview with Roger and Theresa. We didn’t want to get into the war stuff yet, so we were asking them about the mushrooms. Basic questions. All of a sudden, Roger gets up and grabs a gun behind him! We were like, “Oh my god…he’s grabbing a gun!” We hardly knew this guy, and we knew he was traumatized from the war. It turns out he was trying to shoot this pine squirrel that was bothering him in the distance. He missed the pine squirrel, and he said, “I guess he gets to live another day.” That is so Roger. We were just relieved that he wasn’t going to shoot us! It was such a great way to introduce him in the film, because it shows his cantankerous character, but “I guess he gets to live another day” is Roger’s story. This was a season where every day mattered for Roger.
So…what is it about these freaking mushrooms? Have you eaten one?
Sara: Oh yeah. I’ve eaten so many! They’re delicious. They have a unique taste that a lot of Americans have ever tried. But in Japan, they’re a symbol of cultural identity. There are stories about how Japanese people came from the matsutake and how they’r essential for fertility. I’m Italian, and I always liken the Japanese matsutake love to the way Italians love garlic, if that makes sense. Some people don’t necessarily know the lineage of the matsutake, but they know that they love it and it’s a big part of their cuisine. There’s a complex relationship with the matsutake in Japan, but it’s deeply meaningful. It goes for super high prices and has created this entire economy that has fueled the livelihoods of the people in my film and so many more.
How was your first screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival?
Sara: It was amazing! It was a dream come true. I grew up here and I used to work at the San Francisco Film Society and at the film festival, so I couldn’t ask for a better place to launch my film into the world. The reception was incredibly warm, Kouy was there, and almost all my crew was there. I love them with a fiery passion! They’re the most amazing, talented people I’ve ever come across. Couldn’t have asked for more.