Colony, dir. Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell
When my friend’s son leaned over to me and sternly warned me “Colony is bad, don’t see it,” I should have known something was up; but earlier that day a colleague had told me he thought it was good. I decided to take my chances and judge for myself. After all, I’m interested in and concerned about Colony Collapse Disorder, a thus-far unexplained phenomenon in which whole colonies of bees are dying and/or disappearing. I heard about this on NPR a couple years ago. It’s very alarming, because for one thing noone knows why it’s happening, and for another thing – most importantly – if there are no bees, there’s no food, right?
Directors Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell add to that another big concern: the demise of the beekeepers – small, independent business owners whose livelihoods are being devastated by the loss of their colonies. Let me add, too, that I’m a big fan of documentaries about American agriculture, like Food Inc. and King Corn (see my post on King Corn on August 20, 2008). Early on in my viewing of Colony I was feeling confident about this being another film in that vein; beautiful cinematography of golden fields and gray-green almond trees; authoritative-sounding “experts,” and a concern for public interest all seemed to be at the heart of this film. But then things began to go terribly wrong...
You see, it’s not just a film about bees and beekeepers and Colony Collapse Disorder. The film’s “split personality,” as I would call it, takes us on an intimate exploration of family dynamics among the Seppi family, new to the beekeeping business, whose economic situation seems very dire. But these directors, Gunn and McDonnell, focus a great deal of attention on the religious beliefs of this family, in a way that I found quite puzzling. Were they holding up the Seppis to be admired? to be ridiculed? I really don’t think the film made that clear, which is why I asked McDonnell in the Q&A “how do you position yourself with regard to the religious aspect of the film?" and "What do the Ten Commandments have to do with beekeeping?”
Let me explain what I mean. Colony begins with a clip from an old documentary on bee colonies, which describes the colonies as perfectly operating systems in which “there is no individualism,” and “the state controls everything.” The colony operates as one brain, this old film tells us; it is ruthless. Bees practice population control based on environmental conditions. The colony is completely efficient. The voice-over narration goes on and one, inviting comparison to human societies in which humans don’t look very successful after all.
Then we meet the Seppi family, beginning with the two sons, a pair of entrepreneurial young men who lead the family’s farming and beekeeping efforts. They are by far the youngest beekeepers in this industry, and their involvement is promising to those who recognize that the beekeepers are sort of a dying breed. (The average age of beekeepers is around 60 years old, according to McDonnell.) So far, so good, they totally have my support.
But then we meet the rest of the family, and learn (primarily from the mother) about how the parents have structured their family and have decided to pour all of their resources into this business for the benefit of the two sons’ beekeeping operation. All of the kids – there are seven of them, from what I could tell – have to work in the beekeeping business; and in the film it becomes apparent that the family is organized like a hive. All nine people in the family have to work towards this same goal. At their head is the real “queen bee,” Mom, who habitually berates her eldest son for his poor decisions and poor financial acumen. She beats him up (figuratively) with verbal attacks like “how are you going to support your wife and your kids?” (a frequent harangue). The son is like 19 or 20 years old, mind you, and is not even married, let alone with kids.
At the source of the family’s dysfunction is a religious mania which loosely passes as Christianity, but it’s no Christian sect that I’m familiar with. It advocates an extreme form of patriarchy, in which the interests and the futures of the female children are neglected, and women have no place in public life at all (except to go to church. The mom is always telling her son how to negotiate with the farmers, but when he says to her, “Why don’t YOU tell them?” she replies “That’s not my job, that’s your job.” As if only men are supposed to transact business? I don’t get it.
One of the daughters is interviewed, and she tells us, “I didn’t really want to be a beekeeper, but ‘honor thy father,’ right? If it’s what Dad wants to do, I should go along with it to honor him.” When the same girl describes bee society she explains that it’s a matriarchy, “but they couldn’t do it without the males. Feminists need to be reminded of that.” Poor child, I suspect she’s never even met a feminist; and she’s incapable of seeing that the patriarchy in which she lives (through no fault of her own) does not have her interests at heart.
Their religion lulls them into a certain naivete, too; at one mealtime prayer, one of the daughters asks God “to give John Boy a business education this year.” God doesn’t give a business education, business schools give a business education. And after a tough telephone negotiation over price, the young man indignantly exclaims, “and he’s a Christian!,” as if he expects Christians somehow to behave differently with regard to their economic interests than other people do.
Somehow I suspect that the filmmakers have set these people up to look like a freak show; but when I asked McDonnell about that, he of course completely disavowed anything but admiration and respect for the Seppis. Predictably, he proudly asserted that “these people deserve to have their story told!,” but he did not answer my question, “what do the Ten Commandments have to do with beekeeping?” (At a certain point in the film we see a video lecture on the Ten Commandments play on the television while John Boy is asleep on the sofa. What I gather from the Q&A is that McDonnell and Gunn did set up that scene, which was part of a videotape they found at the Seppis’ church; it didn't belong to the Seppis and wasn’t their normal viewing material.)
At this point in reading my blog post, can you still remember what the film ostensibly set out to do? Colony Collapse Disorder? The expert talking heads? I can barely remember it myself, I’m so wearied by slogging through the Seppis’ religious ideology. This is the problem with the film: these two halves don’t really work well together, in my opinion. I signed up to see a documentary about bees, not a documentary about religious fanatics. And further, if I HAD signed up to see a documentary about religious fanatics like the Seppis, there are a lot more questions I would have, that the filmmakers failed to address, such as what planet are they from, anyway? What cult do they belong to? And what kind of future do they envision for their daughters, the ones who seem to be completely neglected in this whole family enterprise? The parents lose $20,000 per year on the business, so why don’t they use that money to send John Boy and the other kids to college instead?
My question to the director was not well received by the audience, who seemed to expect the festival’s usual worshipful attitude towards visiting directors. When I left the theater, I overheard a young woman talking about me, complaining to her friends about “this woman”; so I went and talked to her. She was outraged – indignant – about my question to the director. She said that just because the film was badly edited was no reason for me to be angry. So I asked her, “what do the Ten Commandments have to do with beekeeping?” and she said “probably nothing,” but that I shouldn’t have to asked the director a question like that “in front of the whole documentary audience.” I admit that my comments went on a little too long, but I never said I was angry, I said I was “uncomfortable.” I also find it somewhat amusing that young people in Missouri (the age of our students) are themselves so embarrassed by any kind of conflict or public disagreement that they “feel sorry” for the director! Like I said to this young woman, “he can handle it.” People don’t become film directors and put their work “out there” if they can’t handle criticism from one measly film viewer.
Then there was a comment on my blog from an anonymous individual, as follows:
Word on the street is that one of your questions at a post-movie debriefing made Twitter: http://twitter.com/doowttam/status/9755188050
If you're reluctant to click through, I'll ctrl+v it:
"Why would you film them? I don't like them. You must like them." Worst question I've heard at a q&a. Have you never seen a doc film?
Since the item reported on Twitter has nothing to do with my actual question, and the person who posted it on my blog evidently wasn’t even present at the screening (probably doesn’t even know which film it was!), I can only conclude that Twitter is the last refuge of people unable to listen, think, or analyze information. (Other evidence further suggests it’s also the last refuge of people unable to spell or to write.) There’s no point in expecting they will read my side of the story, because this blog post probably exceeds their attention span capabilities.