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SFIFF Women Directors: Meet Sara Dosa (The Last Season)

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
April 28, 2014 4:00 PM
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Still from "The Last Season"

Sara Dosa's past projects include work as an associate producer on Elena and Jacob Kornbluth's acclaimed documentary about Robert Reich, Inequality for All. A graduate of Wesleyan University, she holds joint masters in Anthropology and International Development Economics from the London School of Economics. 

She is also a mushroom hunter. "While in grad school three years ago, I heard a captivating lecture by Professor Anna Tsing about this multicultural community of mushroom hunters who gather each fall to pick matsutake. Instantly I fell in love. Inspired by Professor Tsing's work, I knew I wanted to make this film." (Press materials)

The Last Season made its world premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 25. 

Please give us your description of the film

Amid the bustling frontier world of south-central Oregon's wild mushroom-hunting camps, the lives of two former soldiers intersect: Roger, a 75-year-old sniper with the US Special Forces in Vietnam, and Kouy, a middle-aged platoon leader of Cambodia's Khmer Freedom Fighters who battled the Khmer Rouge. The two men come together each fall to hunt the elusive matsutake mushroom, a rare mushroom prized in Japanese cuisine. However, the pair discover more than just mushrooms in the woods: they find a new life and livelihood, as well as a means to slowly heal the scarring wounds of war. Told over the course of Roger and Kouy's last matsutake hunting season together, the film is a journey into the woods and into the memory of war and survival, telling a story of family from an unexpected place.

What drew you to this story?

I was first attracted to this story because of the stunning backdrop of Oregon's Cascade Mountains, but also because of the sociocultural and political context. Most mushroom hunters came to the US from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand after wars ravaged their home countries during the 1960s-80s. Alongside them are a handful of Vietnam War vets who sought out solace in the woods upon returning back to the States. Each fall, this diverse community comes together as seasonal workers in search of the matsutake mushroom, which are bought and sold in the Oregon woods, then shipped off to Japan. I became fascinated by how market demand from Japan for an obscure mushroom could cause this unlikely group -- with a shared geopolitical history -- to come together to the Oregon woods. To me, it seemed a world ripe for stories.

However, the story most forcefully came to life upon meeting my two protagonists: Roger and Kouy. These two men bonded in the mushroom-hunting camps after sharing stories of surviving war in Southeast Asia, then became adopted father and son. Their story, thus, is not just a search for an elusive mushroom growing underground; it's also a search for healing, meaning, and rebuilding family in the wake of profound violence.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

I think the biggest challenge was first gaining trust in the mushroom-hunting community -- especially in the temporary tent-city called "Mushroom Camp" that pops up outside the small town of Chemult, Oregon, from Labor Day until the November snowfalls. At first, many people thought we were spies for the government -- or, that we were going to steal secrets of where people's prized mushroom patches (which many liken to their "bank accounts") were located. But after spending lots of time getting to know people -- hanging out over campfires, going mushroom-hunting, eating in the makeshift camp restaurant (the "Noodle House"), and just generally trying to practice reciprocity and respect -- we gained trust, so much so that we even wound up babysitting for kids in camp and being welcomed into homes, as well as all kinds of camp activities and celebrations.

Another great challenge was how to tell a cohesive story that was at once a constellation of other resonant stories. Our film is about mushroom-hunting, ecology, global-trade economics, the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge, PTSD, and family. It took a long time for us to find a structure that could lucidly tie together these seemingly disparate elements. Luckily, I worked with amazing editors Erin Casper and Stuart Sloan, who helped to weave this tangle of ideas instead into a coherent narrative. Eventually, each of these strands became united through the larger themes of life and death cycles -- of loss, re-generation, and finding connection -- but told through the lens of our two protagonists.

What advice do you have for other female directors?

Be tough and trust your instincts. If you passionately want to do something, then get the right people together and just do it. There is always a way, no matter how broke you are. This is the same advice I'd give to any filmmaker, regardless of their gender. But I think female directors have to be one step tougher. If you want to direct, you have to just start directing and take that leap. No one will hand you your first directing job.

I started out PAing on commercials and narrative films right out of college in hopes of gaining the practical knowledge of how to shoot and direct. I tried to get closer to Camera by being a set PA or trying my hand as a grip. Over and over, I was laughed at when I carried lights and G&E gear (I'm small, but strong!). Despite my efforts and competence, I was constantly put on craft services or told to work as a production secretary -- or worse, to be a stand-in while scenes were lit so the gaffers and DP could "have something sweet to look at." At times, the sexism was subtle; at other times, it was blatant. To me, this kind of re-routing was not only humiliating and exhausting, but it blocked opportunities to learn a skill set I desperately wanted -- one that very few women in the industry have compared to men.

My experience is not every woman's experience, though. I've met many incredibly thoughtful, talented men in this industry -- many of whom I'm lucky enough to call my close collaborators and friends. But it's important to critically evaluate the system before you try to work your way up it. If the system is antithetical to your own values and dreams, then it's better to step outside of it -- with wonderful, like-minded people -- and find your own pathway forward.

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

The biggest challenges with changing distribution mechanisms right now has to do with monetizing digital media and structuring distribution deals in a way that allows independent filmmakers to somehow live off of their work. In terms of opportunities, I think that digital and social media allow audiences to find content -- and storytellers -- more easily than ever before. All kinds of powerful serendipity can emerge when you meet your audience; you are brought closer to how and why your work as a storyteller matters -- and you have the potential to engage in relationships you may have never imagined. 

Name your favorite women-directed film and why.

I have many favorite female directors, such as Kelly Reichardt, Laura Poitras, Claire Denis, Barbara Kopple, and more. I think my favorite women-directed film (or the one that impacted me most on the making of The Last Season), though, is Agnes Varda's The Gleaners and I. To me, this is a deeply poetic, formally innovative film that uses the framework of "gleaning" -- or, the common practice of picking up the scraps of harvests to find food -- as a way to explore not just subsistence strategies, but more broadly, the meaning of the forgotten, the discarded and the recycled within rural and urban landscapes. However, Varda inserts her charming self into the film illustrating that she, too, is a gleaner seeking art in the mundane -- and that all storytelling is ultimately an act of gleaning.

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