A Fruit Tree Grows Roots in East Hampton

The Hamptons International Film Festival helps launch an activist documentary.

By Courtney MacGinley • photograph by doug young

Seated among a crowd of 50 at a private Hamptons Film Festival event, I was given a small red berry to roll around in my mouth for a minute or so—part of a sensory experiment that The Fruit Hunters team conducted during the screening. The berry, which is called “miracle fruit,” was soft and fleshy like a grape with a semi-tough skin and a bally seed. After letting the berry dissolve in my mouth, I was given a piece of lemon to bite into. “This berry will trick you into tasting something sweet,” I was told as I bit into a wedge of lemon, semi-hesitantly. But as I was ready to pucker, a pleasantly surprising sweetness overwhelmed my mouth. According to this team of fruit enthusiasts, the miracle fruit has been banned from global distribution as an alternative to sugar. These folks believe there is much more to be said about fruit.

The Fruit Hunters, a documentary based on the national best-seller by Adam Leith Gollner, was participating in the Festival’s first-ever “Pitch-in” event; a collaborative effort of filmmakers and audience members alike to join forces and aid in the further developmental stages of social advocacy docs-in-progress. The event, which was held at the East Hampton home of Patti Kenner, consisted of two films, The House that Herman Built and The Fruit Hunters, both Canadian “Best Pitch” winners from Hot Docs. The by-invitation-only presentation was seen by a cherry-picked audience—philanthropists, community organizers, influential foodies—all of whom had either connections to or could participate viably in the completion of these films.

And through this connection, from them to me and me to you, the goal is that the chain of connections will continue providing The Fruit Hunters with resources that will aid in the developmental momentum of their project.

The Fruit Hunters introduces us to the exotic underworld of fruit and the aficionados who harvest, hone, exploit, protect and explore it. Author Gollner began his journey in Brazil where his newfound passion for rare and unusual fruit took form. His book, a prose-like voyage of “nature, adventure, commerce and obsession” was handed over to his friend, documentary filmmaker Yung Chang, who exuberantly began the process of preproduction. Working with producer Mila Aung Thwin and with the celebrity backing of fruit enthusiast Bill Pullman (shown, previous page), the “fruit hunters” found themselves in the dining room of a beautiful East Hampton home, at a private HIFF event, pitching their film to an exclusive audience.

“The story seemed so underground,” explains Gollner, “now it’s in the Hamptons! It’s thrilling to see the adventure continue, bringing us all together to celebrate our own backyards and how exotic they are.”

The Fruit Hunters reveals an array of fruits and flavors that one would never imagine exists outside of the world of pomegranates and açai berries that we’ve come to know as exotic (along with other mentioned fruits whose names read like a Dr. Seuss grocery list). Chang explains, “The relationship we have with fruit is unfortunately defined through transport and shelf life, with chemically created fusions that are bland, homogenized and industrialized. We’re looking to change that.”

And while the fruits themselves are rare, the fruit hunters are painted as wildly extreme characters, living and breathing their unusual crops, feverishly protecting the gems that grow in their backyards, whether that backyard be in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, the rolling hills of Italy or along the California coast.

“When I started this project, I thought, ‘Are these people for real? How will I adapt them?’” Chang says. “Then I met them, and they’re all amazing. I can’t help but put them into cinematic terms; they’re all fleshed-out characters.”

Actor Bill Pullman recalled the moment his fruit passion began: “It was an orange epiphany. I was walking down the street in Los Angeles when I saw a bright, ripe orange hanging from a tree branch. I didn’t know you could grow oranges in L.A.!”

Pullman now owns a four-acre orchard in Los Angeles where he grows oranges, pomegranates, persimmons and pineapple guava, just to name a few. When the New York Times profiled Pullman in June 2009, mentioning his orchard and fruit zeal, Yung Chang read it in Montreal and contacted him about his project. “In the tradition of code of the fruit growers, I offered to help spread the word by volunteering,” Pullman says, adding, “The Fruit Hunters is a brilliant account that Paradise is linked through orchards. Today, Paradise is threatened.”

Elizabeth Radshaw, director of the Toronto Documentary Forum at Hot Docs, spoke about the power of documentary film: to entertain, to inform, to provoke change. “Social-issue-driven films can be a tool for social change,” she says. “Through this Pitch-in event we’re looking to create organic links, coalitions, networks and affiliations.”

I followed up with Pullman shortly after the event. “The Hamptons Film Fest was extremely welcoming and their invitation allowed the full team to assemble for the first time in person.” He says, “We pushed around some new ideas and gathered some new momentum. Mila and Yung are pursuing some leads that resulted from the Pitch-in session.”

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“The relationship we have with fruit is unfortunately defined through transport and shelf life,” Chang explains, “with chemically created fusions that are bland, homogenized and industrialized. We’re looking to change that.”