“The Real Dirt on Farmer John” director Taggart Siegel investigates the decline in the world’s bee population in his latest documentary, “Queen of the Sun.” Below find an interview with Siegel where he discusses what led him to make the film and his passion for anthropology. “Queen of the Sun” opens at New York’s Cinema Village on Friday, June 10th.
What it’s About: In 1923, Rudolf Steiner, a scientist, philosopher & social innovator, predicted that in 80 to 100 years honeybees would collapse. His prediction has come true with Colony Collapse Disorder where bees are disappearing in mass numbers from their hives with no clear explanation. In an alarming inquiry into the insights behind Steiner’s prediction “Queen of The Sun” examines the global bee crisis through the eyes of biodynamic beekeepers, scientists, farmers, and philosophers. On a pilgrimage around the world, 10,000 years of beekeeping is unveiled, highlighting how our historic and sacred relationship with bees has been lost due to highly mechanized industrial practices. Featuring Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, Gunther Hauk and beekeepers around the world, “Queen of The Sun” weaves a dramatic story which uncovers the problems and solutions in renewing a culture in balance with nature. [Synopsis courtesy of the film’s website]
Responses courtesy of “Queen of the Sun” director Taggart Siegel.
From anthropology to filmmaking…
Originally, I didn’t even imagine being a filmmaker. I wanted to be an anthropologist, to travel to unknown regions of the world and work with indigenous cultures. At 18, I was volunteering at the Museum of Natural History in New York and even though it was fascinating, it was lonely in those cavernous storage rooms looking at dead and ancient artifacts.
At the same time, I was attending the New School of Social Research and took an amazing class by world-reknowned biographer and teacher, Donald Spoto on Alfred Hitchcock. Spoto brought the deeper meaning of film alive in me and at that pivotal moment I realized I wanted to be a filmmaker as well.
I moved to Wisconsin to study Anthropology at Beloit College and after one class, I realized I didn’t want to be an anthropologist nearly as much as I wanted to be a filmmaker. The problem at that point, was that Beloit didn’t have a film department at all, so I enrolled my Classics teacher, Art Robson, (who had taught film in Berkeley), to teach film classes in film at Beloit. Suddenly, a whole new department was created, and armed with my obsession about Hitchcock, I started making Super 8mm films. My first film was based on Tess of the Duberville by Thomas Hardy, and it was filmed on Farmer John’s (“The Real Dirt on Farmer John”) farm, where I cast all the farmers and artists in the film. What I didn’t know at the time, was that all of that footage that I shot in the early 80’s on John’s farm would later be an archival goldmine for me. I made my first documentary on Farmer John (Bitter Harvest) losing his way of life as a farmer, at Columbia College for my MA. All this was fodder for the making of the “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” (2005) years later.
Even though at the time my passion was divided between fiction film and documentary, my anthropology brain took over and I soon became immersed in making a film “Between Two Worlds” about a Hmong Shaman from the mountains of Loas to the high-rise tenement houses of Chicago. I spent the next 25 years making films for broadcast about refugees, spiritual elders struggling to preserve traditions in alien environments, to marginalized youth surviving hostile streets, as well as a film about Orangutans for National Geographic.
I had no idea about the importance of honeybees until I read an article in 2007 that bees were crucial to our environment and they were dying out on a mass scale, a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder. The article had a quote attributed to Einstein which scared me enough to get me to pick up my camera and dedicate the next three years of my life to this film. It read, “If bees disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.” Though some dispute whether Einstein said this or not, countless evidence reinforces that man is completely dependent on pollinators. These reports were a major wake up call for me, and gave me the sense of urgency to make “Queen of the Sun,” as I felt that we could not afford to lose bees.
The “Shortcuts” of documentaries…
Normally my films have had one or two central characters that drive the story. “Queen of the Sun” was a departure for me as the cast of characters were so diverse spanning from Switzerland to New Zealand to Italy to the U.S. They included beekeepers, scientists, and a chorus of experts, authors and philosophers. Sometimes I felt like I was in a Robert Altman film, like “Shortcuts” that has so many characters, and I had to get them all to work together as an ensemble to not only present this issue, but embue it with the emotion, drama and urgency it deserved.
My approach with my incredible producer & co-editor Jon Betz, was to view the main character as the honeybee, and interweave the serious subject of Colony Collapse Disorder while focusing on illuminating the wonder of bees. The film spans many countries and characters but the universal relationship between beekeeper and bee was really the golden thread that holds the film together and gives it a sense of poetry, which was important to us both.
Bees are a window to a look at a larger relationship between mankind and nature, and that I think is what always drew me into working on “Queen of the Sun.”
Keeping in check…
Jon and I began searching for financing starting Summer of 2008. This of course, was during the heart of the economic collapse, and money was extremely tight for everyone. We applied to ITVS I believe 5 times, and made it to the finals three times but never received funding. At times we felt like we were having a Groundhog Day experience with the whole thing.
So, we had to be very resourceful with budgets. We did a lot of grass-roots financing, finding donors, and also had to invest a lot of personal money to run the ship for all of production and post-production. It was not easy.
For “Queen of the Sun,” we also never felt we had a distribution offer that was the right fit. So a huge challenge has also been searching for a new route of distribution, and ultimately taking on the role as distributor through our non-profit distribution company Collective Eye, Inc. We saw an incredible potential when we released “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” throughout the world, working with grass-roots organizations to pack the theaters night after night. So through Collective Eye we’ve strived to build on that and we’ve put together a strong team to engage communities around the country. Currently our theatrical release has spanned 70 theaters and growing. It’s been exciting, as we’ve had to learn it all on the fly. How to book theaters, how to advertise in press, how to get press, how to really turn people out, how to create an online presence, social community, all of that.
Response so far…
The response has been overwhelming. I think there’s been a great need for a documentary on bees not to be all doom and gloom and to give people hope about this crisis. What’s been wonderful, is the responses we’ve been receiving through our website and facebook from all around the world from people who are passionate about the film and want to help share it. We’re rolling out theatrically around the country, and we’re excited to be opening in New York June 10th at the Cinema Village and June 17th at the Laemmle Theaters in L.A.
My previous film, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John,” was a starting point for us in many ways. We would talk about it often in terms of structure and style, but “Queen of the Sun” is a vastly different film in many other ways. I think more than anything, a certain style of films were very inspirational to Jon and I as we were editing “Queen of the Sun.” We are inspired by documentaries that approach their subjects with a sense of philosophical insight, that bring in the imagination and the poetry into the story as much as they bring into dialogue the hard-hitting social/political/environmental issues. We talked in the edit room about films like Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World” or Agnes Varda’s “Gleaners and I”. Both of these films create stories out of journeys that involve many characters. There were more in this vein. But films like these also came up because of their keen sense of beauty and truth and ability to still stay on target in terms of the essence and the feelings they were communicating.
Plans for what’s next…
We have a number of ideas, but right now I’m very open to new possibilities. Just like “Queen of the Sun” came to me in a flash, I’m hoping that the next film will appear in the same way.