More Than HoneyReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/14/13 09:30:01
Many potential audience members will see a preview for Markus Imhoof's documentary "More Than Honey" and perhaps wonder if it has anything particularly new to tell them; we learn about bees and their symbiotic relationship with the local flora in elementary school science class and it's not that hard to grasp. As it turns out, the details can be surprising, and Imhoof presents them in a wonderfully vivid way.We know the broad strokes - that, as Imhoof so quaintly puts it, the buzzing of a swarm of bees is the sound of trees having sex, with the bees carrying pollen from male plants to female ones as a by-product of gathering the trees' nectar. What the audience might not realize is quite how managed a process it is in the twenty-first century. As American migrant beekeeper John Miller tells the audience, having hives of bees in the right place to pollinate large groves of trees when they blossom can be big business, even if it does mean unnaturally transporting them around the country and giving them drugs to counteract the fungicides being sprayed as the bees try to do their work. We also meet Swiss beekeeper Fred Jaggi, whose family has also been doing this for generations and employs some crude eugenics to keep his swarm from being contaminated by the ones from the next valley; Liane & Heidrun Singer, Austrians who breed queen bees for a successful mail-order business; Zhang Zhao Su, who gathers, sells, and transports pollen in China where bees are rare; and scientists in both Europe and Australia who study the creatures.
But first, we watch a swarm of worker bees tend to a chamber containing a pupating "princess" just as it's about to hatch, and it's this sort of amazing close-up high-definition footage that may prove the most memorable for audiences. Imhoof gets us right inside the hives, giving a stunningly clear look at the insects' life cycle from egg-laying to mid-air mating, along with things like the little dance that scouts do to communicate the position of good food sources. It's all kind of beautiful, even if some it is unnerving enough to certain members of the audience that it could be dropped into a bee-related spinoff of Phase IV (go ahead, try to forget about the existence of verroa destructor, a parasitic mite that attaches itself to a bee and drains its blood). Even if seeing insects blown up to the size of a movie screen is nightmare fuel, it's undeniably fascinating and astonishing.
A fair amount of this close-up footage seems to have come from working with Dr. Randolf Menzel, whose wonderful accent and tendency to do things like push pins into bees so that they can carry a tiny camera would make him an excellent model for an old-school mad scientist. He comes across as a big personality, and that's something that makes More Than Honey a cut above many other documentaries: The experts Imhoof interviews are not just a series of relatively interchangeable talking heads, but men and women with very distinct personalities, with both their their opinions and expertise communicated through words and actions. That's a big part of what makes fiction films work, but which documentarians don't always get the chance to incorporate, and that Imhoof can do so makes the film more engrossing and less didactic, especially since one can do things like compare the methods and philosophies of two American beekeepers - Miller and the more laid-back Fred Terry - and not worry about one being right and the other wrong.
That practice of not preaching a specific solution to the problems facing the bee population - and, by extension, the greater ecosystem - or engaging in hysteria is a big part of what marks the film as an educational film for adults (though it's probably okay to show to kids in junior high, and maybe a little younger). Imhoof doesn't traffic in mislabeled objectivity about the effects human being have had on their environment, but beyond a description of why there are so few bees in China, he also doesn't present simplified explanations of complex interactions. As a result, theories about colony collapse disorder which point a finger at one single cause have no place here, and a subject that many might expect to be a centerpiece of the film is treated pragmatically, as part of the landscape. That very practical approach in many ways makes the film's point of view much more convincing - you can't watch beekeepers making decisions about their livelihoods and simply dismiss the factors which led them to this point.Imhoof uses a number of other techniques well - the photography is quite nice even beyond the impressive bees'-eye-views, while he does an unusually good job of taking a story that circles the globe and makes it flow smoothly, with the help of co-writer Kerstin Hoppenhaus and editor Anne Fabini. Above all, Imhoof and company do a superlative job of tapping into how this big subject is very personal, both to himself and his subjects, without having to preach or scold that it affects everybody. That focus rapidly promotes "More Than Honey" from noteworthy science documentary to great documentary to just being an excellent movie.
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