HIFF Spring Showcase: ‘The Fruit Hunters’

Last year, I wrote a post about a botanist who created a pog fruit. This story was created as an April Fool’s Day prank. However, the key to any good lie is that it contains a grain of truth. While researching the post, Mark Suiso of Makaha Mangoes told me pog fruit was theoretically possible.

A year later, as if by fate, I watched the documentary film, “The Fruit Hunters.” Directed by Yung Chang, “The Fruit Hunters” is inspired by the book of the same name by Canadian journalist, Adam Leith Gollner, and follows a group of fruit enthusiasts who travel well beyond the mundane fruit of the grocery store to feed their obsession.

“I never felt anything for fruit until I explored the secret paradise beyond my grocery store, ” says the narrator. “If you’re lucky, you’ll find that one fruit. So unique. So flavorful it will hook you forever.” This film goes beyond the mundane fruit of the grocery store and takes you into the street markets of Southeast Asia and beyond.

The film opens at a meeting of the Rare Fruit Council International. Among those in attendance are Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell, tropical fruit curators at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida. They carry on the work of the organization’s namesake, David Fairchild, who in the early 1900s introduced over 20,000 varieties of fruit to North America, including mangoes, nectarines, dates and cherries.

During the film, Ledesma and Campbell travel to exotic locales like Bali in search of a rare white-fleshed mango called the Wani and to Borneo to find the kurakura durian, rumored to taste like peppermint and garlic. Despite having to trek though dense jungles, finding the fruit is the easy part. Once they find the tree, it’s a race against the clock to add the clippings to their genetic collection in Florida before the branches die.

Once they have found the tree, it is a race against the clock to add the clippings to their genetic collection in Florida before the branches die. This is especially important due to the fact that the trees in Asia are often no longer there when they return, because if someone offers enough money to a land owner, the tree is more valuable as lumber than for it’s fruit.

Contrasting the individual stories of the fruit hunter’s search for the rare and obscure, the documentary delves into the history of fruits that have become common place in our supermarkets.

“Like all fruit,” explains the narrator, “it’s destiny is shaped by the people who discovered it, cultivated it and saved it from disappearing.” Fruit like the Hass avocado which, was first cultivated in the backyard of Rudolph Hass who almost cut down the tree before his children begged him to keep it. The Clementine orange, which was cultivated in the garden of an Algerian orphanage by Father Clément Rodier. Or, the poetic story of John McIntosh who was separated from his love Dolly Erwin during the American Revolution when her family fled the United States. McIntosh went to Canada in search of her only to discover that she recently died. The apple tree near her grave yielded an exceptional fruit, known today as the McIntosh apple.

Actor Bill Pullman, who has a backyard orchard with more than 100 different varieties of exotic fruit and plants at his Hollywood Hills home, also appears prominently in the film. When he discovers that a neighborhood ridge is up for sale, he sets out to acquire the land for a community green project called the Hollywoodland Orchard (now called Hollywood Orchard). To figure out what fruits will grow best on the land, he visits various nurseries and meets fellow fruit hunters like Steve Spangler of Exotic Rare Fruit Nursery who describes the sensuousness of fruits or Alex Silber of Papaya Tree Nursery, who Pullman compares to a drug dealer when he presents him with exotic fruits. (After Silber showed Pullman a finger lime, I actually gasped as Spangler squeezed a fruit that looked similar to a kiwi, and out popped juice-filled bubbles of caviar.)  Pullman’s flabbergast expression when Silber describes the flavor profile of a Lucuma as brown sugar, pecan pie and sweet potato is one of many euphoric fruit moments by individuals in the film.

Food porny shots of fruit aside, there is no doubt that the highlight for many who will watch the “The Fruit Hunters” at HIFF will be Hawaii’s connection to the film, in the form of Kona resident, Ken Love.

Hawaii’s climate and rich volcanic soil make it possible to grow virtually any fruit from anywhere in the world, and Love, dubbed Hawaii’s “Fruit Guru”, is one of it’s foremost fruit experts.

“Spending the day with Ken Love,” says the narrator, “is kind of like getting a secret tour of Willy Wonka’s factory.” In the film, Love takes Pullman into the thick brush country on the Big Island of Hawaii to hunt for fruit. During their exploration, Love shows Pullman an Ice Cream Bean, which he opens to reveal mouth watering cotton candy like fibers. They also find guavas, bilimbi, water apples and durian.

Love then gives Pullman a tour of the 12 Trees Project in which he asked chefs to pick 12 fruits based on seasonality. Although it started out a huge success, the 12 Trees Project becomes a precautionary tale for Pullman when Love describes how he lost control of the land to the management of the cooperative resulting in the orchard not being properly maintained.

These are just a few of the many individual stories profiled in this amazing documentary. There are no pog fruits in the film, but after watching “The Fruit Hunters” I am convinced that the fruit spawned in my imagination is somewhere in the world. It just hasn’t been discovered yet.

Love, Suiso and other members of the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers will be available at the theatre for questions before and after the screening. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to learn about some awe inspiring fruits, many of which are available in Hawaii if you are willing to hunt for them.

“The Fruit Hunters” screens at Dole Cannery Theatres on Wednesday, April 10 at 6:00 p.m.

The Hawaii International Film Festival Spring Showcase runs from Friday, April 5 through Thursday, April 11.