When tackling a complex issue with such potential for a dramatic impact on the way we as humans live our lives, the inclination usually is to go out in search of the smoking gun, no matter how elusive one may actually be. Often, though, when an issue is as complex and troublesome as, say, the world's bee population finding itself in rapid decline, there is no smoking gun. Or, that is to say: There is no one thing to blame – rather, it is a conflation of many elements (some obvious, some not so much) that have contributed to this incredibly troublesome situation. And as director Markus Imhoof's documentary 'More Than Honey' suggests, the real culprit here is humankind's success – an answer that is as complex and tangled as the question itself.
But 'More Than Honey' isn't simply an "issues" documentary – though the issue certainly is the mainspring of the film – it is a combination of eye-opening environmental concern, and a thrilling up-close glimpse into the lives of bees, as they exist today. And by that, the film means: bees as an extension of humankind's agricultural and business concerns in the United States, as well as in Europe and, most troublingly, parts of China.
Imhoof himself grew up very close to the fuzzy, yellow insects and as such, has a particular fondness for them, not to mention the kind of experience necessary to make the little buggers an interesting topic and primary visual component of a 90-minute documentary. For those who are inclined to watch the film with its original German language voice-over, that's Imhoof doing the talking. (For those who want to listen to the film in English, however, you will be treated to the dulcet tones of John Hurt – which actually makes for some compelling listening). At any rate, Imhoof's voice-over and childhood connection to the practice (not so much the business) of beekeeping generates a strong sense of the deeply personal, almost introspective nature of his film. This keeps 'More Than Honey' from feeling like too much of a piece of propaganda – even though the weight of the issue at hand has more than a right to be examined in such a manner.
Instead, as the film journeys from its opening scene at a Swiss beekeeper's small operation, to the massive production of Miller Honey Farms, which makes use of 50,000 hives and spends the year moving the vast majority of its bees around the country by truck, pollinating large fields of crops. The juxtaposition of these two operations might have been enough to demonstrate just how strikingly different these individuals approach their livelihood. When we're first introduced to Jim Miller, the head of the company, Miller Honey Farms is helping pollinate an almond grove thousands of acres in size. Meanwhile, Swiss beekeeper Fred Jaggi is simply battling to keep his black bee population free from interlopers that buzz in from a neighboring farm. It is, essentially, the epitome of the mom and pop operation in comparison to the massive corporate culture of a multi-million dollar a year industry. But the film doesn't stop there. 'More Than Honey' also takes a look at a group of scientists studying the bee's brain to determine whether or not a single bee (and, by extension, as the film suggests, the "super organism" that is the colony itself) can make a decision, or if it (they) act solely on instinct. The results are surprising.
It is at this intersection of the surprisingly enlightening and the sullenly ominous that 'More Than Honey' finds its true voice. Imhoof balances two aspects of science to educate and entertain. As the film progresses from one beekeeper, businessman, or scientist to the next, the real star of the show is simply buzzing away, oblivious to the fact it is the subject of so much concern and fascination. Utilizing some amazing, cutting edge macro-photography (using the kinds of lenses reserved for invasive surgical procedures), Imhoof is able to capture the lives of bees with such startling clarity and detail it's like looking at life on another planet. As a filmmaker, though, the director doesn't simply put his subject on film, he brings them to life, framing their daily rituals with great reverence, and rendering their aerial maneuvers in slo-mo as if capturing the first flight of some experimental aircraft.
This combination of the fantastic and the alarming makes for interesting viewing, even though, at a certain point 'More Than Honey' has to make tough decisions on what gets screen time and what does not. Perhaps most shocking is the disheartening (but necessary) tonal shift when the film delves into the horrific body-horror of parasites and disease, which have been partially attributed to the decline of the bee population. By focusing on a colony of bees belonging to Miller Honey Farms being transported in a truck that's under attack from mites and disease, Imhoof creates a claustrophobic sense of unease and terror that's every bit as effective – if not more so – than any horror film in recent memory. In a disturbing scene, mites crawl across a bee's black eyes and attach themselves to the backs of various bee heads, spreading disease that first leaves a generation of bees deformed and then an entire colony dead. But this is merely a foreshadowing of what has already transpired in parts of China, as that country's declining bee population has forced them to pollinate thousands of acres of crops by hand. It is a salient glimpse at one possible outcome of a very tricky and complicated problem.
'More Than Honey' is as fascinating as it is portentous, a film that celebrates the wonder of its subjects as much as it wants to investigate the cause of their troubling and uncertain future. In order to make this film, Imhoof scoured the globe and reportedly compiled over 500 hours of footage. With that much information there, it's easy to see how shrinking it down into 90 coherent minutes can result in a film that, for all the information it so willingly presents, still feels like it hasn't scratched the surface. Not exactly a call to arms, or the signaling of a death knell, this absorbing documentary wants its audience to be in awe of its subject as much as it wants them to be aware of their precarious situation.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'More Than Honey' comes from Kino Lorber as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase, which itself comes in a cardboard outer sleeve. The disc has a handful of previews on it, but they can be skipped to the top menu. The film is presented with its original German language voice-over, but, as mentioned in the review, you can switch over to an English voice-over by actor John Hurt.
'More Than Honey' is presented with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that highlights the film's macro-photography with striking clarity. As the bees are certainly the focal point of the film, the image here manages to offer them up so that each tiny hair on their bodies is plainly visible, while every other detail is rendered so immaculately, it's like truly seeing the creature for the first time. Tiny details and textures abound in the bee-centric portions of the film, which offer a glimpse of the bees at work and their place of business (i.e., the hive) in extraordinary detail. Contrast levels here are also quite high, as the black of the background manages to be very strong, thereby offering up the bright objects in front of it with great contrast.
The human-centered portions of the film also look very nice, but these can sometimes suffer from a slightly soft image that doesn't dramatically impact the overall look of the disc, but it's enough that the viewer might notice. Detail is faintly diminished in facial features and some texture is lost, but this is mostly in the wider shots. Otherwise, the close-ups help the image to retain the level of clarity and detail that is typically seen during the macro moments.
Overall, this is a very nice looking disc that may have viewers coming back just to marvel at the image Imhoof and his team were able to capture.
The German DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is a full-bodied affair that presents the voice-over and various other elements with equal aplomb. Dialogue (voice-over and otherwise) is easy to hear and balanced quite well with the ambient noises, sound effects, and score. Most of the time, the voice-over takes precedence over all, offering up clean, crisp-sounding dialogue that's delivered primarily through the center channel. Meanwhile, the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 seems to treat the voice-over slightly differently, as Hurt tends to sound noticeably lower and softer, and the balance between his voice-over and the other elements of the mix feel off to a certain degree – sound effects and score often overwhelm Hurt's voice, which is too bad because he does a great job and offers a separate experience to the film.
Otherwise, the sound is delivered rather well, though it is primarily done through the front channels. Certain elements of the film manage to find their way to the rear channels, but these mostly consist of swarming bees and ambient sounds of farm equipment or traffic. Still, the mix does its best to be dynamic, and the offering here manages some nice elements that, depending on which voice-over you're listening to, is either balanced well, or not well at all.
'More Than Honey' is a interesting and entertaining look at the life of bees as well as a troubling account of colony collapse disorder. There is a mixture of amazement and concern that doesn’t quite balance out as well as it should have, but does at least offer an easily digestible flow of information to educate those without any knowledge on the subject. As in most cases, this isn't the only source of information one should seek on a topic as important as this, but it does serve as a compelling and intelligently made starting point. The disc contains a wonderful image and sound that, while good, can be uneven on the English language voice-over. There are some interesting supplements, but nothing that necessarily comes off as astonishing. Recommended.