Up on the Mountain is a documentary film that follows Southeast Asian refugees, Latino immigrants, and rural Americans on a year-round migration to harvest wild mushrooms in the American west. Working on foot in public forests equipped with only a bucket and a pocket knife is an accessible way for the pickers to become their own bosses. But despite evidence of the sustainability of the harvest, the workers who supply the restaurants and markets of Europe, Japan, and North America are repeatedly denied access to public lands.
Up on the Mountain is a feature length documentary that follows three different groups of commercial mushroom pickers as they travel on the “mushroom circuit”—a year-round migration that takes them from Alaska to California, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming—to harvest wild mushrooms from public forests.
When commercial mushroom picking took off in the 1980s, it immediately attracted some of the most disenfranchised groups of society: Southeast Asian refugees from the Vietnam war who had difficulty finding work because of poor English skills and discrimination; Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants escaping poverty from their countries only to be taken advantage of by U.S. employers; rural Americans out-of-work due to the decline in the logging and fishing industries; and back-to-the-landers who didn’t fit in the 9-to-5 lifestyle. Having little to lose, they took to the woods hoping to regain control over their lives. They have created a subculture of outcast gatherers who depend on a deep knowledge of nature and, most importantly, on one another.
Despite evidence of the sustainability of the harvest, commercial mushroom pickers are repeatedly denied access to public forests. The Forest Service is understaffed and lacks the funding to manage the resource. Forest managers often find themselves overwhelmed by the sudden arrival of hundreds of independent pickers, many of whom think they should have the right to harvest freely from public land. They accuse the Forest Service of privileging the logging industry and of racial profiling.
In a cinéma vérité style, Up on the Mountain offers an observation of some of the power dynamics that structure our society. We hope the film will contribute to improve the work conditions of the pickers, the management of our public forests, and the relationship between pickers and managers.
The film is currently in production.