Every fall before winter sets in, workers flock to the small rural town of Chemult, Oregon for one purpose: to hunt the prized matsutake mushroom. A Japanese delicacy, the mushroom’s high demand coupled with its limited growth makes for an attractive job opportunity. Kouy, a 46 year old Cambodian war veteran, hunts the matsutake as a way to provide for his young daughter back home. Roger, a 75 year old former Vietnam sniper, resides in the Chemult community amidst his failing health. Filmmaker Sara Dosa introduces us to the world of these workers alongside the unlikely yet intimate friendship between Kouy and Roger. As the matsutake season moves to a quick close, Dosa brings us deep into the multiple layers of these men’s relationship and provides an intimate portrait of how family can emerge in the most unexpected of places.
Director Sara Dosa spoke with us about her subjects and what inspired her to make this film.
The Last Season screens Thursday, June 19 at on the roof of Brooklyn Grange (Navy Yard Farm). Get your tickets online or at the door!
RTF: How did you learn about the matsutake mushrooms? Did they lead you to Kouy and Roger, or vice versa?
SD: I first learned about the matsutake mushroom while a graduate student studying cultural anthropology at the London School of Economics. Professor Anna Tsing was giving a lecture about the Oregon mushroom hunting community, but through the lens of capitalism and labor. I was fascinated by the topic and contacted her about turning her work into a film. Kouy was one of her research subjects, so Anna gave me his contact information. But, my producer Josh Penn and I actually met Theresa, Roger’s wife, first. During our first location scout, we very serendipitously bumped into Theresa (it’s a long story – you can read it all here if you want: http://blog.sffs.org/home/2014/5/in-focus-sara-dosa-on-the-last-season.html) and instantly loved her. Once she told us about Roger’s story surviving war in Southeast Asia – and, about how they adopted Kouy – we knew we had a film on our hands.
RTF: Was it your intention for the film to touch so highly on war and the effects of war, especially Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
SD: Yes, it was our intention for the film to highlight war and PTSD. While we see this primarily as a character piece rather than a “social issue” film, Roger and Kouy were deeply shaped by their experiences in war – and, their stories of war is what drew these two men together in the first place. For us as filmmakers, it was thus essential to bring those traumatic memories to life on screen. Further, the annual mushroom hunt where the film takes place serves more as a metaphor for overcoming the ravages of profound violence, than merely just a backdrop. As Kouy poetically articulates in the film, mushrooms thrive off death and decay, but transform that into the stuff of new life. So, while the film illustrates the violence both men endured, it also shows how they found new life and a new family in the war’s wake.
RTF: Why did you choose Rooftop Films as a platform to show your film?
SD: Rooftop is the best! We chose Rooftop for a number of reasons. Rooftop has an incredible record of not just showcasing excellent films, but of being true champions of independent film. From their filmmakers fund to the events Rooftop puts on, Rooftop has time and time again provided the tools and forums for films to get made and seen. We are honored to be among the films they program. Further, we absolutely loved the idea of having our NY premiere on a farm! The location ties the themes of our film together so well and will create that much more of a vibrant experience for the audience.
RTF: Can you speak of the juxtaposition between the rural American location and the Buddhist culture depicted in the film? Why was this juxtaposition important to have in the finished film?
SD: While it may seem at first like we are setting up a juxtaposition between rural Oregon and Southeast Asian Buddhist communities (we specifically depict Lao Buddhist cultural ceremonies called Thak Baht and Boun Khao Pah), I actually see it more as an integration of groups of people who unexpectedly have a lot in common. The Oregon woods is not the first place where many Americans would guess is the seasonal home to a diverse group of largely Laotian, Cambodian, Thai mushroom hunters. However, as the film unfolds, the audience will come to understand how most people in the matsutake mushroom hunting world share a history of surviving war in Southeast Asia. Many of the year-round white and Native American Chemult residents fought for the US in Vietnam. Similarly, most of the mushroom hunters of Southeast Asian descent fought alongside the US in the Vietnam War on the Cambodian and Laotian fronts – and, in Laos’ Secret War. In this way, Southeast Asian geopolitics finds itself way into Oregon’s rural landscape. It is this notion that we hoped to represent onscreen.
RTF: Were other mushroom pickers followed throughout the production of this film? Did other workers have similar backgrounds/experiences as Kouy?
SD: We filmed with about ten other mushroom pickers – most of which had similar backgrounds and experiences of war and migration to that of Kouy. For example, we filmed extensively with a family originally from Laos whose father fought for the US-backed Royal Lao Army against the Pathet Lao communists during the late 1970s. We also filmed in depth with the mushroom buyers you see in the film and with a self-taught mycologist and matsutake expert about three hours south of Chemult. We decided, however, to focus the film on Roger and Kouy’s story due to the unexpected and emotional nature of their relationship.