You Have to Negotiate
“I’m blessed to be able to work on what I really love,” smiles Richard Campbell. “I don’t like lychees, for instance. Lychees are really cold, they don’t respond, they don’t do what I want them to do. But a mango,” he goes on, “is always a negotiation. It’s a love story, like a relationship. You just don’t go in there and demand they do something. You have to negotiate.”
Yes, you may be nodding, Richard Campbell is blessed. How could he do anything else but what he does, which is to say, tropical fruit curating? As he goes on to explain in The Fruit Hunters, he’s come by his interest—his obsession and his devotion—as so many young men do, through instruction and modeling by his father. “It’s all about having set objectives,” his father told him, “It wasn’t enough to go out and collect something without a reason.” As Campbell takes this edict to heart, he travels the world with his partner Noris Ledesma, in pursuit of fruit.
The film follows them to Bali, where they seek the wani, a white mango. As Richard climbs a tree, his bare feet clutching the trunk as he shimmies his way up, hoping to cut down the bud wood they’ll be able to use to graft onto trees back home. For 20 years, he says, he and Noris have been trying to make this graft stick, to grow the white mango somewhere other than this tropical rain forest, and for 20 years they have failed. Still, they persist. “We can only get better,” he smiles.
The reason he collects fruit, Campbell elucidates, is not only because he seeks variety and pleasure in tasting, but also because he sees the risks of industrial farming and monoculture, of engineering food as a means to profits. The camera pans slowly over supermarket bins full to bursting with bright red, yellow, and green fruits as director Yung Chang narrates, “You can buy the exact same fruit anywhere in the world.” If such displays suggest abundance and commercial brilliance, the film argues otherwise, that the returns are diminishing, that sameness is not more, but less. Holding up bananas to the camera as he speaks, Juan Fernando Aguilar Moran points out that breeding a single crop invites trouble: “Monoculture a dangerous practice in agriculture.”
And so Yung Chang’s film celebrates diversity, in a particular, precise, and provocative way. Much like his previous films, Up the Yangtze and China Heavyweight, this one offers careful pans and close images, detailed compositions and gliding overviews. His interview subjects offer expertise but also something else they describe as necessary for their work, passion. If Campbell’s enthusiasm might seem insular, his understanding specific, he sees ever broader possibilities, the reasons his father insisted he appreciate and be able to articulate.
This sort of vision is shared by Bill Pullman (“I know Bill Pullman as a veteran Hollywood actor,” observes Chang, “But I’m not sure that acting is his main passion”). He appears in various fruit hunting modes, at an auction, in California orchards, riding around Kona, Hawaii with former AP photographer, now fulltime fruit hunter Ken Love: in each case, Pullman’s face provides the film with something like its perfective correlative. Biting into one fruit after another, he’s seized by a sensual bliss, his eyes closing, his sighs infectious. As Pullman’s effort to organize his community in the Hollywood Hills to cultivate an orchard forms a second storyline, parallel to Campbell’s, he performs the pleasures of sampling starfruits, identifying microclimates, and listening to growers. “You’re like the addict who says, ‘I want to eat, I want to eat,’” he says. “By the time he’s done with the spiel, you feel like you’re the luckiest person.”
It’s this feeling that fruit hunters pursue and so want to share. For it’s the community they find with one another and with casual, even unsuspecting, seekers, suburban shoppers or villagers at market. For the fruit hunters, the taste is a point of departure, not the end. The idea is to cultivate, to create potentials, to communicate. Just so, Moran describes the investment of pollination. “It’s important to pollinate with enough love,” he explains, “like when you make love with your wife or your girlfriend. There has to be romance, there has to be atmosphere, before the sexual act, because his allows the woman to be receptive.” The conventional, if fervent, metaphor, underscores what he calls the “faith” necessary for such adventures. To bring fruits and humans together, it can be a way to save both.