Film Review: The Fruit Hunters
By Fresh Fruit Portal editor Matthew Ogg
I was a bit stumped recently when asked what a litchi tasted like, as for me it's just a fruit I've grown up with. A litchi tastes exactly like a litchi.
I thought back to a summer afternoon picking the fruit in Tumbulgum, New South Wales in Australia, hedge clippers in hand and watching my little sister scour the orchard floor, hands overloaded with the little pink gems, throwing them into a big plastic bucket. I remembered breaking the peel and how refreshing it was to eat that light watery fruit on a hot day.
My response to the question however was fairly mundane; litchis are small ball-shaped fruit with a pink peel that comes off easily. You open that and you get a juicy white flesh inside, with a pip you can pull out or spit out.
"That sounds like something I ate in Ecuador. Is it like a rambutan?" asked the litchi virgin.
"Yes, I guess it's fairly similar," I replied, although there's probably some rambutan lover or botanist out there who would beg to differ.
Her response shows just how difficult it is to communicate what fruits are without the sense of taste or smell, and how their relevance draws back to personal experience. What does this fruit mean? What is its story?
These are questions the film "The Fruit Hunters" answers masterfully, through rich and often sensual visuals, combined with a series of plot lines that grow on one central theme - man's relationship with fruits and how they have evolved with us.
Based on the book of the same name written by Adam Leith Gollner and directed by Yung Chang, this biophilic homage tracks the stories of passionate and eccentric characters who dedicate their lives to studying, growing and preserving fruit varieties; some rare, others most likely on your kitchen bench right now.
There is the story of Noah's Ark-inspired Richard Campbell and Noris Ledesma from the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Florida, who travel to Bali in search of the Wani mango and to the depths of Borneo where a rare durian is under threat from logging. The pair first appear at a mango auction where the film's leading actor Bill Pullman comes into play, although he is just being himself - an avid fruit lover.
Pullman relates stories of his forays into cultivating fruit as an adolescent and how that love of understanding where food comes from has stuck with him. The documentary follows his push to establish a plot of land as a community orchard in the Hollywood Hills, with heartwarming scenes of neighbors coming together in the pursuit of a happier and healthier life through fruit.
He also accompanies Hawaii-based fruit aficionado Ken Love on a natural degustation, slashing away overgrowth with machetes to taste such delights as guavas, ice cream beans and water apples.
Then there is the story of the Italian "fruit detective" Isabella Dalla Ragione who examines fruit like pears and figs in ancient paintings and seeks their modern day descendants in monasteries, gardens and the wild.
The Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research's (FHIA) Juan Fernando Aguilar, who I can happily say has graced the screen of www.freshfruitportal.com, also makes an appearance. The film looks at Aguilar's work into breeding bananas that are resistant to Panama Tropical Race 4 disease; a plague that threatens the very survival of the staple crop.
It should be noted there is a mistranslation in Aguilar's section when discussing the pollination of bananas and using seeds for breeding. He says if a banana plant was well-fertilized it could yield one seed in every 500 bunches, but the English translation says one in every bunch.
This is but one small error in the encyclopedic effort of making this film and does not detract from its true sense and purpose; to celebrate fruit and its history with us. As Dalla Ragione says, "all this memory is a heritage that should belong to everybody".
The documentary is critical of the uniformity and predictability of the modern fruit industry, but also highlights how eccentrics like those in this film have made what were once exotic fruits mainstream, and how the search for new fruits and varieties helps promote biodiversity. It brings people like Rudolph Hass and Ah Bing into the story, whose namesakes are today's most common avocado and cherry varieties respectively.
"The Fruit Hunters" also gives depth to the litchi question, highlighting that a Chinese emperor's need to fulfill a consort's insatiable appetite for the fruit led to the downfall of the Tang Dynasty.
The film makes frequent references to the past with fun facts and historical anecdotes, often lined with a healthy dose of deliberate kitsch or innuendo like, "is it strange that when I look at certain fruit I find myself a bit...aroused...almost like it's trying to seduce me?"
A thoroughly entertaining and moving tale that will surely spark your desire to devour and appreciate more fruits, I give "The Fruit Hunters" four stars, and would perhaps be so bold as to say this is one of the greatest films ever produced in the fruit documentary genre.
"The Fruit Hunters" was produced by EyeSteel Film and premiered at the Rencontres internacionales du documentaire de Montreal (RIDM) in November. It is currently screening in Canada and distribution possibilities for the U.S. and world markets are currently in discussion.