'Sun' Days: A Time Of Hanging On And Hoping

Jun 9, 2011

The gloomy outlook of some environmental documentaries can get a little oppressive. The mood is understandable, given the dire consequences of things like climate change, desertification and careless natural-gas drilling.

Queen of the Sun takes a different approach. It's not that the stakes aren't high: At issue is the disappearance of honeybee colonies across North America and Europe — colonies that are vital to agriculture. The film isn't trying to make anyone feel fine about what would essentially amount to the end of the word as we know it, were bees to disappear entirely. What it is doing, and beautifully, is making a sunny and optimistic case for why the world is worth saving, via gorgeous imagery and poetic appreciations of the bees themselves.

Barely a segment goes by without a ravishing shot — brilliantly colored flower-studded fields being serviced by the bees, or close-ups of the tiny workers going about their business on the blossoms or in the hives. The vividly photographed life of the bees serves as a constant backdrop for the mix of fact and philosophy supplied by director Taggart Siegel's interviewees.

And therein lies this documentary's other major divergence from the norm: Apart from food activist Michael Pollan and environmentalist Vandana Shiva, Siegel largely avoids big-name experts reciting facts and figures. Instead, he seems to choose his subjects with the same affection for memorable and eccentric personalities that Werner Herzog demonstrates in his films. The result is a group of people — many of them beekeepers themselves — who have a gift for talking about the insects in glowing, heightened language and imaginative metaphors.

Gunther Hauk, a biodynamic apiarist who keeps a honeybee sanctuary in the midst of Monsanto-owned corporate farmland, forms the film's emotional and factual core. He began beekeeping late in life, and his view of the insects is informed equally by the pragmatism that got him into it in the first place and the spellbound, otherworldly fascination with the creatures that seems to take hold of everyone who takes up a hive.

With Hauk's approach to studying bees steering the film down the center, things never veer too far into either dry scientific fatalism or hippie transcendentalism. (And steering clear of the latter rabbit hole is no mean feat, what with that one beekeeper with the penchant for meditating among his hives, blissfully brushing the honeycombs with his bushy mustache.)

Siegel takes the occasional misstep by trying to chase after all the ideas he obviously had for the film. A couple of animated sequences, one in claymation, another in dreamy watercolors, are well done, and they nicely illustrate the interviews they accompany, but as isolated visual events they don't entirely fit into the film. Also out of place is a segment near the end about an assisted-living center for the mentally disabled, where residents collect and bottle honey; it's heartwarming, but a distracting non sequitur.

Most valuably, Queen of the Sun explores the varied reasons for colony collapse while providing a road map for combating it: the eradication of monoculture farming, abandoning the use of pesticides that end up harming bees more than the pests they're meant to eradicate, and stopping migratory beekeeping that trucks bees all over the country, killing millions in transit and stressing the colonies.

Promoting understanding and appreciation of the beauty of the bees and our intertwined relationship with them is also presented as a vital part of the equation. Siegel, through his adoring lens, looks to kindle that appreciation in every pair of eyes that views the film. (Recommended)

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