In the early minutes of Vanishing of the Bees, Pennsylvania beekeeper David Hackenberg stands amidst beehives and their buzzing inhabitants. “A lot of people out there don’t realize that one out of every three bites of food they stick in their mouths, these honeybees put on their dinner table,” he asserts. “And if they’re not here?”
It’s a serious and important question; throughout 2010, recurring news stories reported drastic and unexplained decreases in bee populations, a phenomenon knows as colony collapse disorder. Those stories continue in 2011, and even though the headlines may not be getting the attention they did last year, the diminishing bee population is still a matter worth exploring in depth.
Vanishing of the Bees, a documentary by George Langworthy and Maryam Henien, and narrated by actress Ellen Page (Juno, Inception) attempts to do that. According to the press notes, Vanishing of the Bees explores the mysterious and massive disappearance of honeybees across the world, follows the lives of beekeepers, and looks at possible causes and solutions to the matter. If only the film had stuck to that promise; in supporting its thesis, Vanishing of the Bees deeply explores numerous other related issues. The result is a meandering and long-winded essay film that loses its focus amid countless details.
It’s important to acknowledge what Vanishing of the Bees does well. First, the aforementioned Hackenberg and another beekeeper, Dave Mendes of Florida, are the primary interviewees in the film. By exploring the livelihoods and the hardships of these men, the filmmakers quickly bring the audience close to the subject matter. An interesting revelation is the obvious love Hackenberg and Mendes have for their bees, an affection that transmits well on screen.
As the film progresses, the eagerness and perseverance of Hackenberg and Mendes becomes more evident as the two men struggle to understand what is destroying their livestock. A particularly captivating sequence follows them to an international beekeeping conference in Paris. In trading stories with French beekeepers, Hackenberg and Mendes leave the conference invigorated and inspired. (And it turns out that France is the birthplace of modern beekeeping methods, which is succinctly detailed in a nicely produced DVD extra.)
Securing Ellen Page as the narrator of Vanishing of the Bees was a coup for the filmmakers; Page’s conversational tone definitely makes the subject approachable, and the use of a female voiceover artist aligns well with the fact that beehives are matriarchies.
Another strength of the film is it incorporates the voices of key experts, most notably the folksy-yet-academic Dennis van Engelsdorp, a member of Penn State University’s Department of Entymology and Pennsylvania’s acting state apiarist and acclaimed author and food activist, Michael Pollan. Van Engelsdorp lends broader scientific context to the central topic while Pollan defines honeybees’ importance to human nutrition.
Slow-motion, macro focus shots beautifully display the wonder of bees in flight. Elegant animations, thoughtfully executed with illustrations and introductory quotes, signal the beginning of each chapter — each new topic — in the film.
But here’s the thing: The film has 17 chapters. While care is certainly given to the bee crisis and to the experiences of Hackenberg and Mendes, the film wanders in multiple directions. Just some of the other topics that are explored include: commercial beekeeping versus organic beekeeping; the history and application of pesticides; traditional farming methods versus modern-day “monoculture” crop cultivation; and the differences in the regulatory practices between the European Union and the United States.
While each of these topics plays a vital supporting role in Vanishing of the Bees, each item gets too much screen time. When everything is treated with utmost importance, the unfortunate outcome is that nothing seems very important.
Throughout the film, viewers are subjected to quite a few bad puns: urban beekeeping “creates a buzz”; beekeepers are “equally stung” by their love of bees; Dee Lusby is described as the “queen bee” of the organic beekeeping movement.
Most unforgivable, however, is that the script by Langworthy, Henein and James Erskine forces Page to break the fourth wall in the film’s final chapter with a direct call to action. “There are practical solutions you and I can do every day to save bees,” Page reads. The solutions posed are not without merit, e.g., shopping at a farmers’ market is described as providing “both a fun outing and delicious, healthy food,” but suddenly the film has stopped telling a story and starts to feel like advertising. Putting a marketing-style call to action in the voice of an ostensibly impartial narrator breaks a vital rule and risks undermining trust in the filmmaker.
That’s not to say a filmmaker can’t inspire an audience to do something about an issue; it’s just there are subtler, classier ways to do it. Canadian director Gregory Greene — in his post-petroleum documentary, The End of Suburbia — assembles an outtro sequence where his interviewees describe the actions they’re taking. And although Robert Kenner’s Food Inc ends with calls to action, they appear as non-voiced-over titles after the fade-out from the film’s main content. In each case, the filmmaker has taken himself out of the way.
Ultimately, Vanishing of the Bees is simply too long, too verbose, too haphazard and contains too many voices. A weakness of any essay film is that it often speaks to an audience already attuned to its position. Presenting a long, multifaceted, bludgeoning work is not a very effective way to reach those who may not be aware of the topic but could become interested.
To put it another way: You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.