More Than Honey (DOC 2013)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This documentary’s first hour flashes between Europe and America: the Swiss Alps and rural Austria are set against impossibly vast almond orchards in California. In the former, wizened old beekeepers puff their ubiquitous bee-placating cigars and describe the challenges and joys of the trade; both human and insect move slowly and patiently over the land, shrewd and more than a little hairy. In the USA, meanwhile, a larger-than-life industrial farmer laments the loss of 20% of the hives which dwell their temporarily due to fungicides, lice, and an uneasy long-haul journey on the back of a lorry. All the while, he ruefully resigns himself to a capitalism that seeks global domination.

In the final half-hour we look to latter-day oddities which offer potential futures: a province in China which must now pollinate its flowers by hand as a consequence of the Maoist policy of massacring sparrows; an island in Australia where breeding experiments attempt to harness genetic diversity to improve resilience; and a farmer in the US who is a fervent proponent of killer bee honey, even if it means wearing hi-tech overalls (his Swiss and Austrian equivalents don’t even bother with a veil).

Markus Imhoof (Flammen im Paradies, Das Boot ist voll) fills the screen with bees, dead and alive, in their natural – and unnatural – habitats. His own family plays a role; the grandfather alluded to in Flammen im Paradies was apparently also an avid beekeeper who passed on this passion to the filmmaker. Imhoof’s own grandchildren make a brief but touching appearance, also clearly fascinated by the li’l fuzzballs.

As a Brit migrant I’m always intrigued when a more famous Swiss movie makes it into the national press “back home”. Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian awarded More Than Honey three stars with a rather mean-spirited write-up of what he calls “an interestingly laidback film… almost restful”, comparing the documentary unfavourably with the more clear socio-economic and political messages of The Vanishing of the Bees (2009). I disagree, though. The slow-ish pace and lingering shots of the film’s tiny protagonists in various states of triumph and tragedy relate sensually how incredibly important they are, and that something is horribly wrong, especially related to industrial honey farming. The lack of a relentless call to action or explicit critique of the obvious enemies here – monoculture, poisonous chemicals, underregulated farming – meant the message was contained within a sweeter spoonful of honey.

Imhoof’s social messages aren’t particularly subtle, but he never talks down to his audience, always foregrounds the human story, and tells his story visually and with patience rather than ramming text down our ears. He’s become my favourite Swiss director.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (easy).
Language: Depends where you watch it, but there are voiceovers available in American English with subtitles for the non-English parts.
Availability: PlaySuisse, Amazon Prime

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