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If you had asked me to say three positive things about fungi before I watched Ron Mann's new documentary, Know Your Mushrooms, I would have answered that the dung-loving creatures are sort of cute, in a grotesque, Rabelaisian way; make nifty poisons; and provide excellent housing for gnomes. But would I eat one, especially one picked from the forest floor? Never.

The mission of Mann's new film is to cure fungophobes like me of all our misconceptions about mushrooms - chief among them that the complex organisms are little more than toxic offshoots of natural waste.

According to the experts assembled in Know Your Mushrooms, the capped, colourful wonders are not only a vital part of our fragile ecosystem, they are also at the root (or is it spore?) of countless mythologies, religious and spiritual conceits, and perhaps consciousness itself. And I thought they were just slimy vegetables one picked off pizza and fed to the dog.

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Ron Mann is, of course, the reigning king of the alterna-culture documentary - having made award-winning films about everything from squawking free jazz to Woody Harrelson's biofuel crusade - so it's somewhat surprising that it has taken him this long to getting around to the "mushroom community," a tribe not unfamiliar with alternative realities.

But don't expect Know Your Mushrooms to be one long trip down the kaleidoscope. Set during the annual, and very popular, Telluride Mushroom Festival (who knew it existed?), Know Your Mushrooms is more about hard science and gourmet cuisine than space-outs and the munchies.

For instance, did you know that the world's largest living organism is a single-source mushroom colony that spreads out for miles and miles? Like, awesome, man.

As far as I'm concerned, mushrooms are rubbery, tasteless sub-vegetables that grow in poo, and should stay there. Disabuse me.

Oh, wow. Really? Well, go see the movie!

Did that.

Um, well, they are kind of fascinating. There's a cultural fungophobia, in North America, compared to Europe, where generations have passed down what is safe to eat.

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In Europe, they are fungophiles. We were told to stay away from wild mushrooms, from wild culture, really. The point of the film is to change that attitude toward mushrooms.

But when so many of us have grown up on nothing but the bland little button mushrooms from the grocery store - and those ones are really gross! - it seems like a big task to change that attitude. I would be terrified to eat a wild mushroom.

Right. Well, you won't die if you eat the kind that are safe. There are so many varieties of mushrooms, and only a few varieties are poisonous. But if you're going to go out in the forest, you really should have a field guide. For me, what's incredible is being exposed to the many varieties, and what they potentially can do - medicinally; for the environment.

They are the life-sustaining force of the planet - mushrooms are the fruit of a vast web that is underneath the earth, a membrane that feeds the trees and every living thing. And there are thousands of different kinds. I think they are actually a detoxifier, for the environment and potentially for us.

How many different types have you eaten?

Oh, God, I don't know … ever since I started making this film, hundreds. I'm now taking Lion's Mane, and it's supposed to be great for mental clarity! Ha! It may not be working that well! But I agree that sometimes the textures are not great.

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I was in Italy on vacation, and we ate some truffles that were so powerful that I couldn't get the taste out of my mouth for 24 hours. But usually the mushrooms one eats are prepared, cooked in a way to bring out their best qualities.

Why does everybody in this documentary look like a Nanaimo pot dealer? There are people playing hacky sack!

Well, the Telluride group are people who are devoted. The festival is the longest-running mushroom festival in North America. It draws people from around the world. It was started to help identify toxic mushrooms. One thing about it, they were open to "magic mushrooms" from the start, and a lot of, you know, researchers who work with the psychological effects of magic mushrooms attend.

Most of the people I run into at Telluride are … I wouldn't want to put them in the "hippie" camp, because I personally have an interest in psychedelics too. They come from all walks of life. A lot of people assume this movie is about psychedelics. There is about 20 minutes on psychedelics, but that's it.

The marketing makes it look like a film about magic mushrooms.

Uh-huh.

"Uh-huh"? You're trying to get the kids into the theatre with the poster, aren't you?

No, no. The film talks about the cultural aspects of mushrooms too - we could have gone in so many directions with it. The film just covers the basics, it's like a primer. I wish I had more time to talk about the literary, the artistic, the mystical aspects. There's stuff I didn't put in the film - for example, mushroom DNA is closer to human than to plants.

Now you're scaring me. You've made films about comic books, marijuana, custom cars, and now mushrooms. What's next, black-light posters?

God, I had a whole bunch of those in my house! I used to love black light. I wanted to make a film about velvet paintings at one point. Right now, I'm restoring a movie I made in 1976, so I'm right back in that world.

Particulars

Born: June 13, 1958, Toronto

How he got there: Mann was turned onto the Telluride Mushroom Festival by friend and fellow filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who it turns out is a bit of a "fungophile" himself. Like the hair wasn't a dead giveaway.

Say something: Sadly, Mann's IMDb profile boasts a single, two-year-old message board posting. His fans are probably too busy, or easily distra … whoa, ever notice how your ring finger is the same length as your index finger …

What's next? He's currently working on a film tentatively titled Peace, Love and Microchips, about how the subcultures he lovingly documents have found a home on the Web.

Massimo Commanducci

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