Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us? Dir. Taggart Siegel

[Collective Eye; 2010]

Styles: documentary
Others: Food, Inc., The Cove, Forks Over Knives

The first thing I want to do is make it clear that I’m all for the bees. I love bees and think colony collapse disorder (CCD) is messed, and I’m sure Queen of the Sun, the latest documentary by director Taggart Siegel, is right that the recent spate of sudden and massive die-offs is directly attributable to an obvious set of human technological interventions. The second thing I want to do is pan this movie. I’ll start with the small stuff and go from there.

This is not a nature film. Roger Ebert, how can this be “one of the most beautiful nature films [you’ve] seen”? There are, like, three good close shots of bees doing their hively thing. More often, we’re given animations in various styles, none particularly helpful, many obnoxious enough to warrant a scoff or a “Pffft.” One of the animations portrays a pesticide-resistant Varroa mite as a brute slavering over the prospect of killing a maidenly bee (cf. WWI US propaganda, as my friend Allie pointed out).

[Digression:] There’s a whole lot of really uncomfortable gendered anthropomorphizing. The female bees are the ones who do all the work, which inspires the male-dominated cast of commercial beekeepers and bee experts to refer to their charges in feminized terms. The one that sticks out in my mind is “my girls.” While I’m at it, there’s also a scene where an old white guy is educating young schoolchildren about the importance and beauty of bees. The camera, which usually doesn’t make any sudden moves, fixates on the two black children in attendance, which comes across as deliberate, which is already over-deliberate because it constructs this visual dynamic between the old white educator… the camera’s fixing the black children… [End digression before it threatens to overtake the review.]

If not a nature film, Queen of the Sun is definitely an advocacy film. The first act builds a case for honey as a divine gift, for bees as the foundation of all life on earth. We’re supposed to be awed out of the ill-gotten and -deserved antagonistic disposition we might feel toward bees. Here, the film pushes a New Age spiritual love of nature, which makes me uncomfortable both because of that frame’s unsuitability for sustaining anything but the squishiest political content and because it’s essentially a machine for producing irresponsible metaphors (e.g., the hive as society and organism and architecture).

After bee adoration comes the second act, which describes the problem of CCD and identifies its primary cause as monoculture. This is illustrated with the case of California’s almond crop, where millions — billions, probably; I have a hard time remembering numbers above a certain order of magnitude — of bees from across the country are shipped by freight truck to California every year to pollinate miles and miles of almond trees. The area doesn’t have any bees because every spare plot is supporting almond trees, so the bees have nothing to eat. It’s an utterly absurd system and also run-of-the-mill. Just look at the Midwest.

Act three attempts to overcome the despair you’re probably feeling after witnessing humanity’s propensity for self- and other-destruction. Siegel goes about this with portrayals of the men and families of organic commercial beekeeping, and later the women of the backyard beekeeping movement. The results are often much stranger than they are intimate or inspiring. I’m thinking in particular of an Australian family of good clean national character. The daughter talks about how selling honey helps pay for her pony. Her pony likes honey. Her pony wins awards. Oh-kay.

At this point, I’d like to sample some of the “notable quotes” for Queen of the Sun from the press release. “The feel-good advocacy movie of the year” is “as uplifting as it is alarming,” “yet another powerful argument for organic, sustainable agriculture in balance with nature”; it is “[a] call for cultural renewal,” which “makes you dream of making a difference.” My argument is located in the interstices in that grid of assessments. In order to counteract affective overload — the numbing effect that follows alarming exposure (i.e., honest exposure) — advocacy films have to come around to a sense of hope and possibility. This isn’t bad in itself, but it’s troubling when this film is just one of many powerful arguments against industrial agriculture. I’d have to write a book to adequately discuss why a good polemic for sustainability (whatever that comes to) is worthless in techno-topic society, but my basic hunch is that there are five broad options for response to a film like this.

• Option 1: Do nothing.

• Option 2: Dream of making a difference without actually making a difference — without changing your style, your mode of being-in-the-world.

• Option 3: Change your consumption patterns. The efficacy of this option depends on degree and type of change, but on its own has no necessary relation to radicalism, which is to say structural change.

• Option 4: Change your production patterns. In this case, you would become a beekeeper. Maybe this is a crackpot manifestation of my veganism, but I think a critically important unasked question is why we should promote honeybees over feral bees if the solution to civilizational collapse is on the order of cultural (and economic and social) renewal. For a film with New Age convictions about the sanctity of nature, its idealization of domestication strikes me as as blatant capitulation to the conversion of the natural (if this is even a historically relevant or coherent category) into the human. Beekeeping is another move in the process of technological adjustment.

• Option 5: Terrorism. This is the dark side of revelation. Our problems are dire, and if we don’t temper our sincerity with irony, our seriousness with laughter, we find ourselves in a position from which destruction appears as consummate justice.

This review takes on too much, and that’s sort of the point. Queen of the Sun is too nice a package for the material it delivers, and the best it can do is inspire conversation. For that, I appreciate it. If you’re offended by the rating I’ve assigned and want to charge me of making an example, I plead guilty. We need to think better than this or all we’re going to end up with is a bunch of individuals and a disavowed environment. We need to find Option 6. Or maybe we should locate it somewhere around 4.5. Option Z.

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