Beyond the Review: Lillian Salvatore on ‘The Mushroom Speaks’

We are honoured to publish this reflection as part of Take One Action’s ‘Beyond the Review‘ initiative, supported by the Year of Stories 2022 Community Stories Fund. In August 2022, we hosted a two-part workshop – delivered by by gal-dem’s First Person editor, film critic and author Katie Goh – that invited participants to explore the way personal writing and film criticism can meet. Born out of the workshops, these commissions invite a reflection on the connections between local struggles and global realities in the TOAFF22 programme, while showcasing the talent and insight of the authors and supporting the development of their own practice.

For this instalment, Lillian Salvatore has written a reflection on The Mushroom Speaks, screening as part of #TOAFF22 (find out more here).

Mushroom Complex

Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my entire life trying to get away from mushrooms. Twenty-four years of picking them off pizza or peeling the brown and white flesh out from under my fingernails that always seems to get stuck, no matter how tentatively I hold them. I’m not sure what started this hatred, maybe it was the little troop of yellow-topped pests that would grow in the damp, long grass in my parents garden every spring. They always felt wild and dangerous – a poisonous threat I never expected to find in a garden in the city. I would rip their heads off with a lawnmower, delighting in their dissection under the blade. But every spring they’d grow back, yellow and menacing and poking out of the grass. They were inescapable. And so it was with trepidation that I approached Marion Neumann’s film The Mushroom Speaks, which from the outset seems to stress the importance of the natural persistence of the species. 

But The Mushroom Speaks is not a horror film; fungi don’t leer at us from the ground and run after us with a knife. Here, mushrooms are not a threat. Rather, Neumann’s film seems to say, they can actually be our saviour. 

From damp forest floors, the sides of rocky cliffs, and to the dank insides of a domestic refrigerator, The Mushroom Speaks draws us into the fungi world, where we find all kinds of mushrooms growing quietly, steadily, continuously. The film stumbles upon an extensive network of mushroom ‘experts’, made up of people from all over the world who each impart some mycelium knowledge and wisdom from their field. In backyards in America, amateur mycologists perform science experiments to determine which strains of fungi can be used to help clean polluted land and toxic waste; academics theorise about the possibility of harnessing fungi for future ventures into space; foragers share with us the harmonious and collaborative growth pattern of the species. Coupled with long, dreamy shots of moulding fruit and mycelium growing in zip lock bags, these interviews showcase the symbiotic and adaptable nature of the species, and recontextualise the mushroom as our collaborator in the survival of the planet. Mushrooms are here for a reason, Neumann’s film says. We need to lean down and pay attention to what they are saying. 

The film is sparsely scored, the soundtrack not music but a puffing, puckering wet kiss sound that mimics mushrooms growing in the wild. There is no voiceover to lapse onto, nor a clear argument to really follow, and so the film often feels slow, like it’s waiting to properly get started. Only lines of poetic text seem to guide us through the film, and I longed to know the names and occupations of the fascinating experts interviewed, who Neumann oddly chooses to not label. It is a sleepy, gentle documentary, and while at times this is frustrating, there is something about these subtle cinematic choices that actually mirror the subject of the film perfectly. Though I watched it on a screen, the dreamlike pacing of The Mushroom Speaks felt like a departure from the constant doom and fear that comes as a given with our extremely online lives. With unlimited access to news from all over the world at all times of the day, it can feel impossible to look up from a screen and take stock of the natural world still growing outside. ‘As everything goes viral, no one knows anything,’ Neumann ponders at the beginning of her film. The Mushroom Speaks invites us to step back from hopelessness and look outside. There grow the mushrooms, returning year after year even after I’ve hacked away at them with a lawnmower. Steadily resilient in the face of adversity.