The title of Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?, at least for moviegoers who've heard or read even a little about the precipitous decline in honeybee colonies in the U.S. in recent years, suggests a lyrical approach to the so-called "problem documentary." If that sounds like a delirious and ambitious strategy, if not an outright contradiction in terms, you're about one-third right. For the combination of vibrant visuals, endearing characters, far-flung locations and wide-eyed humanist faith proves the strength -- and the Achilles heel -- of Queen of the Sun.
Filmmaker Taggart Siegel gets points out of the gate for doing a supremely artful job of avoiding what we'll call An Inconvenient Truth Syndrome. That's the clunky three-step boogie that begins with the collar-grabbing description of an imminent crisis. (Otherwise known as "Jesus, we're f---ed!") Once the filmmaker has our full attention (otherwise known as "Grab their balls and their hearts and minds will follow"), he or she pulls us back from the cliff of defeat and despair with a hefty hunk of hope. Relieved and convinced that it's not too late to avert catastrophe, we grab with both hands the action plan conveniently provided just before the end credits. (This stage is known as "Please, baby, give me one more chance. I swear I'll change!").
Gunther Friedmann, Demeter Biodynamic Beekeeper, keeps his bees outside of Stuttgart, Germany.
Siegel, whose last feature-length documentary was the likable and earnest The Real Dirt on Farmer John, isn't cynical enough to manipulate us in such a crass fashion, even if the worrisome bee die-off is a portent of even graver environmental disaster. Or, rather, he has a more generous view of human nature, one predicated on the notion that sentient, informed individuals by and large do the right thing. That's certainly the spirit that such appealing interviewees as Midwest beekeeper and Euro transplant Gunther Hauk and eccentric French beekeeper Yvon Achard exude. It's this spirit, expressed by the dozen or so hive-tenders, authors and thinkers whose words and philosophy propel the film, that Siegel travels 'round the world to harvest.
The unseen villains are the big players, the profit-driven corporate agribusinesses whose single-minded embrace of monoculture (i.e., growing a single crop, such as almonds, on a tract of thousands of acres), pesticides and genetically modified seeds has starved, poisoned, disoriented and destroyed vast numbers of bees and hives. If you believe that a comparative handful of dedicated (and delighted) beekeepers, abetted by the necessary tens of thousands of consumers buying (and perhaps planting) organic produce, is enough to stem the tide, then you share Siegel's enlightened view of humanity's loftier impulses.
Sara Mapelli, performs a ritual dance with 12,000 bees. Photo by Ruby Bloom
There isn't much science in Queen of the Sun, or documentation of the bee decline in either chart or graph form. This isn't an educational doc so much as an experiential and anecdotal one that taps into our natural (pun intended) attraction to color, sun, the seasons, flowers, sweetness, family and the flow of one generation into the next, and the next and the next.
I freely admit I was seduced and enthralled but, other than a few brief flashes of indignation and dismay, not shaken or roused. Queen of the Sun is diverting and important and recommended to one and all, but its sting is minimal and momentary.
Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? plays Friday, March 25-Thursday, March 31, 2011 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and the Lark Theater in Larkspur, and April 1-7 at the Rialto Cinemas-Elmwood in Berkeley. For more information visit queenofthesun.com.