The Fantastic Fungi (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Diverse and remarkable

Documentary film “The Fantastic Fungi” gives us a vast and fascinating look into the remarkable world of fungus species, which, as reflected by a very old fossil shown in the middle of the documentary, has existed on the Earth for more than one billion years. The documentary surely reminds us that there are indeed a lot more things to learn from numerous different kinds of fungi out there, and it even suggests that they may provide a key to our imminent matter of survival during this century.

With the occasional narration by Brie Larson, the documentary initially gives us a series of awe-inspiring visual moments captured from a diverse bunch of fungus species. As we observe them growing here and there in forests and fields, the narration tells us a bit about their long history of omnipresence on our planet, and their steady decomposition process on various kinds of bio-organic materials including dead animals and plants surely shows us that they are indeed the ones who have supported the circle of life on the Earth.

Through a number of enthusiastic fungus experts, director Louies Schwartzberg, who also serves as the co-producer and cinematographer of his documentary, informs us more on that delicate and complex aspects of the fungi ecosystem. Many of fungus species initially grow as a bunch of tiny strings, but these tiny strings eventually come to form a bigger structure called mycelium together, and mushrooms are more or less than the fruits growing out of mycelium, considering that their major function is spreading tiny seed-like particles, called spores, in the air for more growth and reproduction.

While you probably heard about how fungi benefit plants and animals as providing them nutrients via their relentless decomposition process, you will be surprised to learn that they also help forest trees forming a sort of bio-organic communication network. They connect one tree to another via their mycelium structure in the ground, and one of the experts in the documentary tells us that those forest trees connected with each other via this complex fungal network can actively interact with each other for their common goal of survival and growth.

In addition, a number of fungus species have shown us that they can be an answer to the increasing environment pollution problem in our time. In case of one fungus species, it produces an enzyme capable of decomposing high-molecule hydrocarbon materials, and we subsequently see how this interesting biological property can be utilized for handling oil pollution cases.

It goes without saying that this remarkable diversity among many different fungus species came from that slow but steady process of evolution. Like any other organism on the Earth, they have gradually evolved for more advantage for survival and growth, and one of the best examples is a fungus species which produces a certain famous antibiotic. This fungus uses its antibiotic substance for killing other microorganisms which may grow around it, and, once it was discovered around the 1940s, this antibiotic substance eventually came to save the lives of millions of injured Allied soldiers during the World War II.

Around the 1950s, many psychologists came to focus on the possible medical benefits of the psychedelic substances generated from certain types of fungus species, and their studies subsequently led to the popularity of magic mushrooms during the 1960s in US, which happened to be going through a big social/political change. Of course, those powerful people in the US government such as President Richard Nixon were not amused about these psychedelic stuffs at all, and these psychedelic stuffs have officially been banned during last five decades.

Nevertheless, many experts continued to delve more into magic mushrooms, and one of them was Paul Stamets, who is incidentally the most prominent figure in the documentary. Although he initially grew up in your typical conservative Christian family, Stamets became separated from his Christian background especially after an unpleasant incident involved with one of the important books in his life, and then he found his lifelong passion from wild mushrooms. As a matter of fact, he later established a private company devoted to culturing mushrooms, and one of the most interesting moments in the documentary comes from the scene where he shows us how he and his employees work together. There are many different kinds of mushrooms being grown in the company, and I could not help but smile as watching Stamets revealing a big chunk of some fungus species in front of his enthusiastic audiences.

Stamets has been an advocate of the therapeutic utilization of magic mushrooms and their psychedelic substances, and the documentary gives us several notable examples to observe. These psychedelic substances may help people suffering from addiction and depression, and a couple of terminal cancer patients tell us how they became more relieved and peaceful after trying a psychedelic mushroom substance called psilocybin. For making us understand how their medicated state of mind feels, the documentary throws a series of fantastic visual moments to behold, and it is a shame that I could not watch them on the big screen of the Virginia Theater during the 2020 Eberfest, which was unfortunately canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

I must point out that “The Fantastic Fungi” does not provide much counterpoint for a more balanced viewpoint, but I enjoyed its many informative moments despite having some doubt from time to time, and Schwartzberg and his writer Mark Monroe deserve to be commended for skillfully presenting a brief but compact presentation during its 80-minute running time. Along with another documentary called “DOSED” (2019), which is also about the medical aspect of natural psychedelic stuffs, the documentary will intrigue you a lot, and I assure you that you will come to reflect more on the world of nature surrounding you.

Sidenote: The documentary is currently available here.

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