The Taste of Desire: Pearls of wisdom

The humble oyster is the centre of attention in Director Willemiek Kluijfhout’s film The Taste of Desire, which will be streamed as part of this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival running from April 29–May 4. The film follows five individuals who seem to have nothing in common aside from their connection to the oyster.

Angie Pontania, is a burlesque dancer in New York, trying to juggle her growing family and a well-known stage act that involves a giant oyster shell. The two-Michelin-Star Chef Olivier Roellinger has made seafood his life’s work. Japanese artist Chitose Chi works with pearls that are not always perfectly round. Lotta Klemming is a young Swedish woman who found purpose in her life when she decided to become an oyster diver. Finally, psychologist Nigel Moore, who is dying of cancer, has decided to write the ultimate book on oysters.

While the film focuses on each subject’s personal relationship with the oyster, Kluijghout points out that, “Everything is connected. The oyster is fed by the sea and we eat the oyster. So, everything we do to do the waters will come back to us. Chef Olivier Roellinger therefore calls the oyster the barometer of the world. Chitose Chi explains how the pearl is as alive as everything else in the world”.

How to treat oysters

Kluijfhout herself has a long personal history with oysters. Her grandparents lived in the Dutch seaside town of Yerseke, famous for its oysters. “I used to swim between oysters while visiting them. And I played with oyster shells. That is my first love of oysters,” she recalls.

She was also motivated by the range of emotions that this seemingly simple sea creature stirs up in people around the world. “People seem to either love them or hate them, and there are so many connotations about oysters being healthy, an aphrodisiac, pure nature, decadent, glamorous, and so on,” says Kluijfhout.

The filmmaker discovered a lot about oysters along the way, including how people eat them, their habits and cultural differences.

“Oysters have to be eaten at the same temperature as the sea they’re picked out,” says Kluijfhout, noting that some restaurants do their oysters a disservice by serving them on ice.

“Chef Oliver Roellinger explained that you should never put oysters on ice. That destroys the taste,” she shares.

The oyster connoisseurs in the film respect the natural seasons of the oyster too.

“The people in my film do have a lot of respect for the oysters and the natural way of collecting them, “adds Kluijfhout. “No triploid oysters and no oysters out of the season when they are mating.”

Oysters and over consumption

The Taste of Desire was filmed before the pandemic. One of the points Kluijfhout wants to get across is the culture of over consumption and greed. “The contrast between the handpicked oysters in Sweden and the mountain of oysters eaten without thinking on a decadent party, I hope raises the question about what is really important in life,” she argues.

The Taste of Desire leads viewers to see life through the eyes of oyster lovers. | Photo by Halal Film & photography

She also hopes that one of the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is reassessment of how we consume resources. “Do we need to fulfil all our desires? Isn’t it sometimes enough to desire? I guess that COVID-19 has raised that question in an extreme way for everybody. I hope local products and nature and beauty will stay important when we are not under Covid restrictions anymore,” says Kluijfhout.

She explains that when she watches the film now, she can really appreciate how she was able to travel the world with such ease. She also admits that when the restrictions are lifted, she will have to rethink how she has interacted with nature.

“But I am optimistic. I tend to film what I love. To give that attention. So, the people in my film give me hope. Like Oliver Roellinger. He emphasizes the ethics of the chef. The restaurant of his son Hugo Roellinger doesn’t serve any meat or fish anymore. Only shellfish and algae. Even not a chicken broth (that is so important in the French kitchen). More initiatives like that are important to switch our thinking. And I believe that will happen,” says Kluijfhout.

Challenges while filming

Filming five people with a passion for the oyster might seem like something that is easy to do, but there were some challenges during production.

“First of all, it was difficult to find the right protagonists. I really wanted them to have something special with the oyster, but also existential questions in their life. I have spoken to so many people and researched a lot,” says Kluijfout.

The people she followed in this movie also makes it tough to label this documentary with a specific style. “It is a bit of a strange film. It doesn’t fit in standard documentary definitions. It is not a nature film, not a food film, not an activist or informative film. Luckily, I had a wonderful producer, who really believed in it,” says Kluijfout.

Even though this film has a very specific subject, Kluijfout hopes the larger themes speak to the audience. “I hope it resonates with their own lives. That they have the feeling they have been on a journey. That they feel for the people they see. It is the voice of desire that speaks to them and I hope that makes people think about their own desires and what they find important in life.”

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