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VIFF '09 Interview - The Beekeepers director Richard Knox Robinson

The Beekeepers - At VIFF '09
by Jason Whyte

“The Beekeepers” is about the crisis of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), with interviews from CCD discoverer David Hackenberg and NASA Scientist Wayne Esaias. But it is much more than that. Through experimental techniques it finds our ancient relationship to bees to be a metaphor for our relationship with nature. Beekeepers have been keeping bees for over 3000 years, why are they dying now?” Director Richard Knox Robinson on the film “The Beekeepers” which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival (Oct. 1 – 16)

Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend VIFF for the screenings?

This is my first film. “The Beekeepers” premiered at Sundance in January and has gone to screen at number of festivals including Hot Docs in Toronto, The Mountain Film Festival in Telluride and the Atlanta Film Festival-where it one the jury prize for best short documentary. I do plan to attend the screenings at VIFF if it’s possible. As a first time independent filmmaker it has been difficult in this economy.

Could you give me a little look into your and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I have been a photographer for many years before I went into filmmaking. It’s a natural progression to move from still photography to working with the moving image. There’s something liberating about being able to work with sound and motion after spending so many years trying to invoke motion in your photographs. With the new technology I’m able to make films in similar fashion to how I take photographs. It’s a great time for filmmaking.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

The first answer I can remember giving to that question was that I wanted to be a scientist. In my early years my love of science led me through school But then in college I turned to the arts. Going to school in Nepal changed my life. It challenged my imagination like nothing ever had before.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

I had been a beekeeper off and on for over ten years, having first been introduced to beekeeping while traveling in The Nederland’s. The problem of Colony Collapse Disorder concerned me greatly and I had been following it, though I wasn’t keeping bees at the time. When I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s article “Stung” in The New Yorker, I was launched into action. Somehow, even though I was attending school fulltime and teaching at two institutions I was able to shoot The Beekeepers on a shoestring budget. It was that important to me. As it was my first film, I had to do everything myself; shooting, sound, script, everything, including financing it out of my pocket. I was naïve enough to think I could do it. I had no concept that the film would be so successful.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production?

Just about every aspect of making the film was a challenge. But probably the most difficult was how to shoot a film when you didn’t know its ending. At the time that I started, Colony Collapse Disorder was one big mystery. People were saying a lot of things but there was little evidence outside of the beekeepers’ experiences. Its still largely that way. That’s why I went with David Hackenberg’s belief about pesticides. In the end he became a hero to me. Even then politics was clouding the issue. The government was dragging its feet and seemed to not understand the immensity of the problem. In a system based on political clout, the beekeepers are at the bottom, yet it was the beekeepers, and David in particular, who sounded the alarm.

Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

For The Beekeepers I had a Bolex 16mm, a Sony min-dv camera, and handheld Panasonic camera mini DV camera for my video. While for my sound I used an old Sony DAT recorder and a Marantz flashcard recorder with a shotgun microphone. My basic approach was to get various types of footage from each situation. Since I was by myself, Id often set up the Sony on the tripod and start my interviews with the Marantz recording sound. Then I’d let things run as I scampered around with my Panasonic to get my b footage. When I could, I’d get black and white Bolex footage.

I tried to get as much coverage as I could. I knew I wanted to tie together the ancient experience of beekeeping with its contemporary counterpart. Since filmmaking and photography only go back to the nineteenth century, I was limited in what I had to work with. I had to imply a three thousand year history in a medium that is less than two hundred years old (there’s no archival footage of Vergil). I also spent some time at the National Archives where I found some old films about beekeeping.

Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with the film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

The first time I showed the film at a conference my respondent, who had reviewed the film ahead of time, hated it. In his prepared remarks he talked about how he thought his dvd player was broken. Since its my first film, I thought, okay I’m toast, I’m going back to photography. But then I found that the audience loved it. Throughout the rest of the conference people would come up to me and talk about it. It was an amazing experience. I came to realize that a lot of people have this rigid perspective on documentaries. That information can be packaged in only one way. I’m trying to get away from that.

The other main response has been around politics. Environmental issues have been so politicized that its hard to get beyond the political divide. When I was first showing clips of my interviews to students, I had two art students argue with me for an hour that the film was propaganda. They had no doubt. Yet I didn’t even know where I was going with the piece. I didn’t have any conclusions at that point on what was behind CCD. This shocked me and changed the film. I decided to confront the issue of propaganda head on and put clips from old propaganda films in The Beekeepers.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

There were four filmmakers whose work was pulling on me greatly while making this film. Werner Herzog’s film “The Land of Silence and Darkness” had a huge influence and gave me the inspiration for the opening of the film. Su Friedrich and her “Sink or Swim” film helped a lot with structure. Her poetic editing still amazes me. Chris Marker was the model for my narration. His La Jetee and Sans Soleil were closely studied and never attained. While Jem Cohen and his “Lost Book Found” played a huge role in my visual sensibility. The way he shoots films reminds me of street photography.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?

Coming to filmmaking after photography, it feels like the next thing would be writing.

Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

Id love to work with Wong Kar Wai, Christopher Doyle, Jim Jarmusch, Wernor Herzog, Jem Cohen, the Coen Brothers, Lars Von Trier…there are many.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

I think it can be important. It shouldn’t stop you from doing a film, but in these days where films are becoming popularity contests, it good to have some balance.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

It was pretty fantastic to have its first screening at the Egyptian at Sundance. Ill never forget that.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

Help save the bees -- and us -- and come see my film!

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

I would say to just do it. And try to do something that’s different. So many new filmmakers try to copy Hollywood. The world of filmmaking is wide open at this point. Try to show everyone something new.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

Id have to say Fellini’s 8 ½, or his film Toby Dammit. It’s just an amazing film. It’s a film you can watch over and over again and still find something new. 8 ½ is the classic film about a film. It leads you down the director’s tortured path in creating a film while it critiques the society around him.

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VIFF on my Twitter at!

This is one of the many films playing at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the film’s screenings, showtimes and update information, point your browser to – Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 10/09/09 18:56:04
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