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Locarno Review: Markus Imhoof’s Insightful “More Than Honey” Concerns a Lot More Than Bees in Crisis

Locarno Review: Markus Imhoof's Insightful "More Than Honey" Concerns a Lot More Than Bees in Crisis

Markus Imhoof’s “More Than Honey” makes a convincing argument for the role of bees sustaining both organic and industrial concerns, not to mention their own complex set of behaviors. Facing crises that threaten to impact their existence as well as various marketplaces that rely on their survival, bees are the key in an equation that, through poetic images and convincing testimonials, Imhoof proves to be broken. While the movie struggles to account for far too many issues involving the species’ struggles, it does manage to show the creatures in profound and at times even moving terms.

Through voiceover, the Swiss filmmaker explains that his grandfather’s investment in beekeeping led Imhoof to wonder why the delicate practice has become a lost art. From there, Imhoof travels around the world to explore the modern state of beekeeping and the dangers bees face.

“The bee is the go-between,” explains a California almond farmer, laying out the process through which bees serve as messengers in the pollination process for his trees. While the concept has profound ramifications, at first “More Than Honey” merely lays out the financial incentive for keeping the rhythm of the bees in flux: Pulling up to the sound of buzzing among trees, the farmer proclaims, “That’s the sound of money.”

But the exploration of bees’ industrial impact distracts from the movie’s effective melding of science and aesthetic delights. Breaking down the insect’s advanced hive structure and the human role in keeping it in flux, Imhoof’s camera swirls around the bees with remarkably fluid closeups. In their magnified form, the bees appear less alien or grotesque than elegant, an achievement that makes it possible to care about their fate from a purely humanistic perspective.

From there, “More Than Honey” contains a pileup of scientific issues that cover the gamut of bee production. Imhoof captures the breeding of queen bees in minute detail, ventures to a laborary to witness a bee brainscan, and discovers the dangerous prospects of a hive facing the infection of mites. In this latter case, the camera’s magnifying power renders the infection in sci-fi terms, as if we’ve stumbled into a discarded scene from David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.” In this case, however, it’s the fly-like creature we fear for.

While “The Cove” anthropomorphized dolphins to make the case for saving them, “More Than Honey” goes a few too many steps further by attempting to explore any number of issues facing bees today, from the manufacturing of artificial hives to the migration of killer bees from Brazil to North America. In these later segments, Imhoof struggles to maintain a cogent thesis.

Still, the movie compensates for its murkier sections with a poignant outlook. Smoothly navigating the inner crevices of the hive, Imhoof displays its operational complexity so well that when piles of dead bees are discovered following an attempt to transport them to a new farm, the image carries tragic weight. And so the frustration of the beekeeper runs deep when he sighs, “I’m getting real comfortable with death on an epic scale.”

As the title implies, “More Than Honey” constantly pushes for a profound understanding of bees beyond than the sticky substance everyone knows they produce. The constant reminders that bees really, truly matter can feel tedious at times, but they also allow for a narrative that advances its insightfulness as it moves along, eventually providing a cogent metaphor for a utopian ideal human society may never reach. “No bee gives orders, but everybody behaves,” observes one scientist.

To elaborate on the creature’s majestic rhythms, Imhoof includes simulated larger-than-life shots of the bees in glorious flight, including a conclusive CGI image that shows them soaring into space. By assuming a cosmic perspective, “More Than Honey” makes it clear that it’s about a lot more than bees, which makes their quest for survival an alarming reflection of the fragile human condition even when the symbolism is overwrought.   

Criticwire grade: B

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having played the Locarno Film Festival as its closing night film, “More Than Honey” will next travel to the Toronto International Film Festival, where it’s bound to garner attention for its distinctive activism. In the hands of a distributor willing to play up that angle, it could play fairly well in limited release while generating further word of mouth on the documentary festival circuit.

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