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‘Fantastic Fungi’ Explores the Magic of Mushrooms

Louie Schwartzberg’s Beautiful Documentary Reveals Deep History, Modern Medicine, and More

Director Louie Schwartzberg hopes to raise awareness of the various medicinal,environmental, mental, and recreational benefits of mushrooms with his new film, Fantastic Fungi. | Credit: Courtesy

There’s a visual magic that kicks off the documentary Fantastic Fungi, as time-lapse scenes of emerging and unfurling mushrooms brilliantly color the screen. That much is expected from director Louie Schwartzberg, a pioneer in this patient field of cinematography who’s been running his cameras continuously 24/7 for more than three decades.

But as your eyes sparkle in awe, your brain opens to the astonishing information being conveyed by the audio, which details how intertwined mushrooms are with humankind and the earth at large. Then come experts, from self-taught-mycologist-turned-fungi-for-all-prophet Paul Stamets to writers such as Michael Pollan and Eugenia Bone, who relay all of the astonishing things that mushrooms can do, from fighting cancer and healing psychological trauma to cleaning up environmental disasters and saving honeybees. It’s an entertaining, stimulating, eye-opening film, even for people who fancy themselves relatively knowledgeable on fungal facts. 

Schwartzberg answered a few of my questions last week, and he will be in town for the screening on November 24 to answer yours. 

Photo: Courtesy Explore the Magic of Mushrooms

Did your interest in time-lapse photography lead to mushrooms or was it the other way around?  I pioneered time-lapse photography almost 40 years ago because I wanted to film in 35mm like all the big feature films, but I could not afford the cost of film: $100 per minute. But I did have time and a sense of wonder, so by filming one frame at a time, I could afford it and spend my time chasing the light and filming clouds, sunsets, flowers, and mushrooms.

When did you realize how impactful fungi are to the world?  In the course of making this film, you set off on an adventure of discovery, and learning facts — like they can clean the atmosphere or oil spills, or that mother trees can nurture their young [through mycellia] — were all revelations I did not know.

Why did you decide to dive into this topic as a full-length film?  I like asking the big questions, like a 5-year-old child filled with wonder. Why mushrooms? Where does soil come from? This topic is so dense and varied that you could do a 10-part miniseries on all the aspects of mushrooms: bioremediation; cleaning the atmosphere; healing and feeding our bodies; indigenous knowledge and practices as entheogens; helping people who are suffering from anxiety and addiction to alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine; future solutions like myco materials to replace plastic, etc. 

Do you think the scientific community will further open its eyes to their healing potential?  Yes. Johns Hopkins just received a $17 million grant to open a center of research for psychedelic studies.

Photo: Courtesy Fantastic Fungi

Were all of the sources excited to be interviewed?  They were more than happy to spread the news. Imagine having a spiritual experience that you can’t share for fear of being prosecuted and going to jail. It is about time we have the freedom to have these conversations and shed light on the subject. It is a cultural movement that is exploding and unstoppable.

Are you using mushrooms in your life?  I use them as supplements, mostly lion’s mane for memory and turkey tail for building immunity.

What do you hope your film inspires in the broader culture?  I feel the underground mycelium network is a beautiful model for how we can live our lives — an underground shared economy where nutrients are shared without greed, for ecosystems to flourish. Communities survive better than individuals. That is why we are having these live events, for people to connect, as opposed to watching it alone on a digital device.

Are there plans for greater distribution?  After we do these consciousness-raising live theatrical events, by mid-2020, it will find a home on a streaming platform.  

4•1•1| Fantastic Fungi screens on Sunday, November 24, 4 p.m., at the Marjorie Luke Theatre. It will be followed by a talk featuring Schwartzberg, Rick Ridgeway of Patagonia, mushroom expert Bob Cummings of SBCC, and David Fortson of LoaCom. There’s also a VIP reception after that at Barbareño. See fantasticfungi.com and sbfungi.brownpapertickets.com for tickets. 

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