Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Film Review: More Than Honey (Markus Imhoof) 2013

More Than Honey
Documentaries are normally split into two categories: cinematic or televisual.  Television mainly serves current affairs (obviously), whereas political polemics are saved for the big screen to try and get some visibility above the crowd (think Morgan Spurlock, Michael Moore etc.).  It is refreshing when a film manages to combine the best of both worlds to make a memorable take-home message with a televisual subject matter – in this case, nature.

Markus Imhoof is concerned about the unexpected and mysterious decline in honeybee populations around the globe.  His film is an exploration of bee pollination, food manufacturing and genetic science in order to investigate what the problem seems to be.  He and his team (narrated by John Hurt) travel from California to Switzerland to China and finally to Australia to see how different cultures are reacting to the problem.  From looking at how and why bees pollinate flowers; how they mate and create hives; how they act together as a super-organism in order to protect themselves; and finally how they are used by humans, Imhoof has managed to create a nature documentary that would normally be found on television and made it worthy of the big screen.

The first motivation for watching this film is the amount it teaches the viewer about the incredible life of bees.  Barely a minute goes past without learning something fascinating about bees and their immensely complex social hierarchy.  Queens that give birth to more eggs than their own body mass every day… Male drones who waggledance their way to new food sources and mate with new queens… Female workers who tend to the nest and then kill all the males before the austere winter.  It is a joy to watch and immensely thought-provoking throughout.

The second main joy of this film, as in all well-crafted documentaries, is what it teaches the viewer about different cultures as well as just about honey bees.  The difference it highlights between the USA, Switzerland and China is fascinating and speaks volumes about the different cultures. 

The Europeans we meet are third generation beekeepers who have a peaceful way of life tending to their hives high in the mountains.  They don’t wear suits and instead use cigar smoke to keep the bees docile.  The Americans on the other hand have a Fordist approach to pollination and honey manufacture – everything is done on a huge scale with machines and chemicals to squeeze all of the efficiency out of the bees.  One of the keepers at one point sits in his truck and listens to the bees over the crops: “You hear that? That’s the sound of money.  Bees & trees…fresh printed money.”  Compare this finally to the Chinese method:  apparently Chairman Mao ordered the execution of all sparrows as they were stealing men’s grain, which led to a rise in insects, which was combatted with huge amounts of insecticide, which killed the bees… the solution?  Get migrant workers to pollinate huge fields of crops by hand.  This seemed a perfect metaphor for the way in which Europe, America and China approaches life – classical, handmade Switzerland / modern, machine-led USA / worker-led, macro China.

The darkest part in the film occurs during a horror-movie section that explains all the parasites and diseases that afflict bees, which ultimately leads to a very moving scene where the Swiss beekeeper mourns the death of a number of his hives lost to infections.  The film ends on a happy note however with the rise of the killer bee and the revenge of bee culture on human domestication.

The music in the film is beautiful and has already won a number of awards so is well worth seeing in the cinema if you can find it.  And if you were thinking that a film about bees isn’t of any interest to you: One in three mouthfuls of the food we eat is dependent on pollination…

More Than Honey is released in UK cinemas September 6th.  

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