Now Playing! Lives Tied to the Land, Including Truffle-Hunting Dogs

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Still from Raven Chacon and Cristóbal Martínez's 'A Song Often Played on the Radio,' 2019. (Courtesy SF Cinematheque)

In our transient society, one sometimes forgets that home is a formative and permanent component of identity. This week’s films take us to the Mexican border, sacred Native American lands, the Middle East and the forests of Piedmont, Italy.

Cousins and Kin
Through July 15
SF Cinematheque online

The latest expansive collection of experimental films streaming for free on the SF Cinematheque website is the curatorial handiwork of four indigenous filmmakers who banded together a couple years ago as the Cousin Collective to boost homegrown film artists. The deeply individualistic shorts, divided into four programs on view for a month apiece, deal largely with place, which is to say the filmmaker’s inherited, claimed and frequently denied place in the modern world.

Raven Chacon and Cristóbal Martínez’s satirical narrative A Song Often Played on the Radio (2019) leads off the first show, Cycle 0 (streaming through April 15). A middle-aged bilingual horseman rides alone through the open country in Coronado’s footsteps, ostensibly looking for treasure (using a beach-combing metal detector) and dispensing aphorisms: “When you are hungry there is no bad food, even burritos created by gringos.” It’s a witty, pointed and enigmatic ramble through the present-day vestiges of cruel, dusty history.

Fox Maxy’s San Diego (2020) offers a more fragmented travelogue comprised of glimpses and scraps of daily life that the filmmaker calls “a reaction to colonialism and quarantine.” Social media postings of a Native American child’s dance and Dolly Parton singing an Easter song collide with on-the-fly ocean vistas and phone-filmed clips of friends. Best seen as a half-hour scrapbook, the film vibrates with a SoCal vibe of alienation, frustration and youthful intensity.

Still from Heiny Srour's 'The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived,' 1975. (Courtesy the artist)

6 Days | 6 Nights: Revolutionary Arab Women in the Arts
March 25–30
Online

As its title promises, the Arab Film & Media Institute’s spotlight on female filmmakers and artists blows away stereotypes and received wisdom about the (lack of) autonomy and influence of women in the Middle East. For most Americans, a dip into any of the programs on any day will deliver a bracing blow to anachronistic misperceptions.

Lebanese filmmaker Heiny Srour’s The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived (Saat El Tahrir Dakkat) (1974) opens the series with a chunk of forgotten yet timely history. Srour traversed 500 miles of desert to document the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf’s successful late-’60s revolt against the British-supported Sultanate of Oman and the ensuing social progress. (Fortunately, oil no longer dictates Western “diplomacy.” Wait, what?)

Tunisian director Leyla Bouzid’s multi-award-winning narrative debut As I Open My Eyes (2015) follows a young woman’s struggle to bridge the gulf between her family’s old-school expectations and her passionate singing with a politically conscious rock band. The real-life Saudi writer Hissa Hilal, profiled in The Poetess, demonstrates even more bravery by calling out an extremist religious leader on live television.

Egyptian director Hala Elkoussy is represented by three half-hour films, released between 2006 and 2010, that take us around and outside Cairo, where reverberations of the past infuse the present. Elkoussy’s work reminds us that listening is as important as looking, and often more important than speaking.

Still from 'The Truffle Hunters.' (Sony Pictures Classics)

The Truffle Hunters
Opens March 26
Embarcadero Center Cinema, Smith Rafael Film Center, AMC Saratoga 14

U.S. filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw spent quite some time insinuating themselves into the good graces of three elderly Italian men who are presented to us as legends of a sort. The locals’ particular talent, honed across decades and aided and abetted by their enthusiastic dogs, is finding the much-coveted white Alba truffle in unmarked woods.

The result of Dweck and Kershaw’s not-inconsiderable dedication is a lovely little movie, but set your expectations accordingly: The Truffle Hunters is not a film for foodies. You’ll have to patiently wait an hour and seven minutes for the lone scene of someone enjoying a truffle, which has been sliced over his egg and cheese dish. Even if the theater is equipped with Smell-o-Vision, the documentary isn’t crafted to whet your appetite.

Nor, for that matter, does it persuade us that we are deep inside the informal network of hunters, “sales reps,” middlemen, auctioneers and restaurateurs. We get the contours of the scene, and that may be enough to satisfy your curiosity (it did mine) or it may leave you with a sense of a sketch rather than a landscape.

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The Truffle Hunters is distinguished by a propensity for measured, fixed-camera shots, which have the effect of slowing time and setting us at the pace of its three sort-of protagonists. The shots don’t last as long as to push the film into the realm of “slow cinema,” mind you, but the strategy is nonetheless at odds with the verité approach generally favored by immersive documentaries.

The prominent exception is the wonderfully pleasurable dog-cam sequence, in which a small camera is affixed atop the dog’s head. I didn’t realize I coveted the experience of being a dog, racing down a trail and rooting around in leaves and dirt, until that moment.

The love that emanates from the film is the owners’ adoration of their dogs, notably Titina, Birba and Fiona. At its heart, The Truffle Hunters is a movie for dog lovers and dog owners. And people who wish, for one minute, that they were dogs.