In Focus: Sara Dosa on The Last Season

Golden Gate Award, Bay Area Documentary Feature

SFFS is proud to have hosted the premiere of our very own Sara Dosa's documentary, The Last Season, at SFIFF57! Read on to hear the story behind the film.

The Serendipity of Car Crashes and Directing my First Film

In 2008, I became obsessed with an idea that in 2011 became a story. The idea was to shoot a documentary about the woodland mushroom hunting world of Chemult, Oregon, a truck-stop mountain town of 135 set alongside the desolate Highway 97.  Each fall, hundreds of Cambodian, Thai and Laotian refugees, Vietnam War vets seeking solace in the woods, and other off-the-grid pioneers, come together for the seasonal matsutake mushroom harvest. On the outskirts of Chemult, the mushroom hunters pop up a tent city of blue tarps, RVs and log cabins. Mushroom Camp, as it’s called, is a bustling frontier world where stories of spirits in the forest are shared over campfires and steaming bowls of pho; where Lao karaoke blasts from the makeshift restaurants late into the night; and, where the matsutake bounties of each day are bought and sold, packaged and shipped off from the Oregon woods all the way to Japan. Good “mushroom weather” and high market demand mean a fortune can be found in a day. But, when the snow falls, the season ends. Mushroom Camp empties out as quickly as it came together. The hunters move onto the next harvest.

I first learned of this world in 2008 while in graduate school studying cultural anthropology. The brilliant professor Anna Tsing gave a lecture about the Oregon mushroom hunters through the lens of shifting labor relationships and global capitalism. I was struck by the seemingly unexpected linkages Professor Tsing presented in her work: how the global mushroom trade could bring together such a diverse community, but with a shared history of surviving war in Southeast Asia. Immediately, I was convinced that a powerful story lay here that I wanted to tell on film. I fantasized about diving headlong into the woods.  

A still from THE LAST SEASON

A still from THE LAST SEASON

After graduate school, though, I stumbled into a dream job: I was hired as the grants and residencies coordinator at the San Francisco Film Society. Working at SFFS is film nerd paradise. Daily, I was immersed in the beauty of cinema. I got to watch films being made at various stages and meet with filmmakers (many of whom I idolized) to discuss their processes. During SFIFF, I would run around celebrating storytelling in its myriad of forms with my colleagues who I was lucky enough to call my friends. Everyone working there was hilarious, talented, dedicated and delightfully slightly eccentric. Together we all worked long hours, but were inspired by our jobs, by each other and by the community of filmmakers and cinephiles around us. I loved working there, zealously.

The more films I watched at SFFS and the more filmmakers I met, though, the more I wanted to make my own film. I by no means wanted to give up my SFFS life, but I at once hungered to make my doc. In March of 2011, I got my friend and intrepid producer, Josh Penn, fortuitously on-board. After wrapping SFIFF53, I had one week off – my only time free before the autumn matsutake harvest, thus my last chance to see what the world of Chemult was like. So, Josh and I threw together a ramshackle scouting plan and, during this week, we headed into the woods.

It was late May when we arrived in Oregon’s High Desert mountains. The air was thin and cool; fog clung to the mountainsides, carpeted green. I had only seen pictures of the austere landscape, but had never felt the majestic presence of being in this wild place. We drove around the state, starting in the Willamette Valley with the plan to end in Chemult. As ground zero for the matsutake harvest, Chemult had snowballed in my mind into some sort of legendary place. I was giddy. We were on the Oregon roadways and this film was becoming real.

The day we planned to arrive in Chemult came. I drove, watching the mountains, plateaus, meadows and skies all slip away outside my window as we journeyed deeper into the wilderness. I started to confide in Josh about my brewing conflict. He was well aware that I loved my SFFS job and knew the closeness I felt to my colleagues. But, I couldn’t deny the excitement I felt being in Oregon. We were both being pulled by the spirit of adventure that documentary filmmaking presents.

Then, out of nowhere, it began to torrentially hail.

For many who contemplate a major life move, like quitting a job they love, or risking financial insecurity to pursue a crazy idea, it can feel like you’re about to drive off of a cliff. In my case, this feeling turned literal. Right there, in the middle of our conversation, as chunks of gravel-hail beat down upon our car, we began to spin wildly out of control. We hydroplaned, skidding off of the highway and over a ditch. We flipped twice, hearing the car ceiling crunch against the rocky embankment. Somehow, we landed upright. A feeling of sheer terror seized me: was Josh ok? I looked to the passenger seat and miraculously, he was. A few minutes later, a logger hauling a load of cut poles stopped and came to our aid. Though shaking and freezing wet, we were fine.

Josh and I holed up in a nearby motel and, after the shock began to wear off, it was hard for me to not to take the crash as some kind of warning sign. As a person who looks for symbolic meaning in everything, The Universe seemed to annunciate: SARA, YOU LITERALLY WENT OFF TRACK. DANGER LIES AHEAD. I interpreted this as “stay put in the job you already know you love.” But, what lay ahead on the actual roadway was Chemult, a mere 35 miles south. Nerves wracked, we decided to continue.

A still from THE LAST SEASON

A still from THE LAST SEASON

We rolled into Chemult (in a new rental car) and the set of my dream-doc seemed to unfurl before me. Remnants of the Mushroom Camp tent city professor Anna Tsing described were strewn next to the highway. A matsutake mushroom was painted next to the “Welcome to Chemult” sign on a red picket fence. We pulled into the Forest Service and began chatting with one of the Rangers about our idea of the project.  A middle-aged woman with silvery hair filed papers behind him. Half way into the conversation, I mentioned one of Professor Tsing’s research subjects – a man named Kouy who emigrated from Cambodia in the ‘80s after surviving the Khmer Rouge. The silver-haired woman popped her head up from the files and casually said, “Kouy’s my son.” She then turned and walked away into a back office. Josh and I looked at each other excited but perplexed: This woman was white. Kouy was Cambodian. Not your typical scenario, especially for rural Oregon. We politely excused ourselves from the Ranger and followed the lady into her office.

Her name was Theresa Higgins. Adorning her cubicle were rows of stuffed toy cows, cow figurines, mugs with cows on them, cow-themed snow globes and other bovine paraphernalia. Her blue eyes danced when she spoke; she laughed heartily between breaths.  Instantly, I loved her. Theresa told us that her husband Roger – also a wild mushroom hunter – was in the US Army Special Forces during the early days of the Vietnam War. He was an “advisor” who trained Cambodian, Thai and Laotian forces to fight along with the Americans and the South Vietnamese. Years later, though, Roger found a sense of kinship with the Southeast Asian mushroom hunters who began to come to Chemult where he resided – some of whom he even fought alongside forty years prior. He and Kouy didn’t fight together, but developed a special closeness due to the particularities of their traumas. This friendship turned into an adoptive relationship of father and son.  

Upon meeting Theresa, our film left the hypothetical realm of ideas – we had found our story. This family had what we were looking for: their story was not just about search for an elusive mushroom; it was a search for healing, meaning and family in the wake of profound violence.

Theresa went on to share that she is rarely ever in the front of the office. When we stumbled upon the Forest Service, we brought up Kouy’s name at exactly the right moment on precisely the right day. Recalling the car accident, I thought to myself: We did crash; we did veer off course. But we landed straight into The Next Thing.

A still from THE LAST SEASON

A still from THE LAST SEASON

That afternoon, though, we learned that Roger’s health was rapidly declining. It was clear that he did not have much time left. Josh and I decided that – should we get funding – we had to rush into production during the mushroom harvest that upcoming fall. This meant saying goodbye to SFFS much earlier than I ever anticipated. While excited about the film, I was simultaneously devastated. I remember calling up to tell my boss and close friend, Michele Turnure-Salleo, while she was at a children’s party her twin daughters were attending. We were both crying on each side of the phone. However, over the weeks that followed, Michele, and other SFFSers, encouraged the journey that lay ahead. Michele would talk to me about camera angles and production strategies, calling upon her own expertise in doc storytelling. Friends in the programming department recommended films to watch for style references and inspiration. Everyone chipped in to our Kickstarter campaign, sharing it around social media - and just generally, cheered our team on. The Kickstarter Campaign, along with a generous grant from San Francisco based Catapult Film Fund that came through just in the nick of time, allowed us to shoot. We began production in the late summer of 2011.

It has been three years since finding the story, six years since learning the idea. Now, in a few short weeks, the film will make its World Premiere at SFIFF57. The organization responsible for teaching me so much about filmmaking, is now the site where my film will be launched into the world. My relationship to SFFS has shifted, but I never lost my connection to the organization. Instead, I feel like I’ve come back home, returning in a different form. I joke with some SFFS friends, that they just can’t get rid of me!  The warm camaraderie is still there - the support, the hilarity and friendship – because SFFS has laid such a strong foundation of relationships for individual filmmakers like me and for the community as a whole. I am so grateful and honored to here make my directorial debut.