By Christopher Campbell | Spout June 9, 2011 at 3:05AM
You know how competing biopics and asteroid flicks can be a pain for the producers involved? It must be even worse for documentary filmmakers working on the exact same subject or issue, especially if their points are for the most part the same. While you might prefer Toby Jones' portrayal of Truman Capote, even if seeing it after Phillip Seymour Hoffman's, or enjoy "Armageddon" more than its immediate predecessor, "Deep Impact," with docs you're rarely going to even bother with another film warning and informing about honeybees and colony collapse disorder if you've already seen one, let alone two. Taggart Siegel's "Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?" is the latest of these bee movies, of which I feel I've seen so many I can't keep track. But if you haven't yet seen any of them, this is a fun one to make your first, and maybe only.
I can't claim to be an expert on the disappearance of honeybees or the issues with their migratory employment, their being fed corn syrup or any of the other pressing matters concerning these insects that are so vital to our agriculture. But after a few similarly focused films, I'm getting there. I believe my first shot was the collaborative short "Every Third Bite," co-directed by Take Part bloggers Gina Telaroni and Wendy Cohen, but that one mostly just turned me onto why local beekeeping and local honey is so necessary to a community (including NYC, which at the time had a beekeeping ban). The next was Carter Gunn's feature "Colony," which also concentrates on modern beekeepers but which covers enough ground that while watching the first few minutes of "Queen of the Sun," I swore I'd seen it before (and at the moment I couldn't recall the title of the feature beekeeping movie I'd already seen). Here's another bit of confusion: also in those first few minutes I wondered when Ellen Page's voice would chime in. But it turns out I mistook "Queen" for another similar doc that Page narrates titled "Vanishing of the Bees." I'd recently heard about it because it arrives on DVD this coming Tuesday.
So why not just find and rent those others ("Bite" is on YouTube; "Colony" is on Netflix Instant; even "Vanishing" appears to already be available on Amazon Instant)? Because, while I haven't yet seen "Vanishing," I have seen its trailer and can assure you that "Queen" is the most visually appealing and the wildest and widest reaching of these competing bee docs, at least of the ones I'm familiar with. They all seem to cover the same bases, information-wise. They all have plenty of shots of almond groves in California, which require tons of tons of migratory bees who dangerously intermingle and infect each other with diseases from their own place of origin. They all complain about pesticides and exterminators and the general disregard for and disrespect of these important little animals. Most of them feature the go-to guy for foodie docs, Michael Pollan.
But not all really dig into what it is about bees that is historically, artistically and of course naturally significant. I could have been bored throughout "Queen," and I must admit that the repeated information and settings truly did leave me frustratingly antsy often. Yet Siegel is also interested in the idea of the honeybee and what cultural attention we've given it. The film features some interpretative dance, a look at a community theater production, bee costumes and the work of multiple animators illustrating the life of the bee, some of them more fantastic and dreamlike than others. More directly related to the issues, we're introduced to and hear from historians, philosophers, environmental activists and all kinds of scientists, in addition to the beekeepers (yeah, Pollan's here too). Combined they provide a great sense of why bees are wonderful and significant not just to our food supply but of themselves. Most of these interviewed subjects (particularly the one reminiscent of Rip Taylor) are quite enjoyably eccentric, as well.
I was pleasantly surprised by "Queen" given that I was not a big fan of Siegel's previous doc, "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" (see my scathing review here). But I'm mostly surprised by how positive and hopeful Siegel is here compared to other docs on the subject, and docs about important issues and causes in general. I'm looking forward to what he does next but hope he beats other filmmakers to the punch with whatever it is this time.
"Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?" opens in NYC this Friday and in LA the following week.
Recommended If You Like: "Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo"; "Microcosmos"; "Encounters at the End of the World"