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Film takes the sting out of beekeeping

'Queen of the Sun' creates buzz for Portland filmmakers
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Since filming “Queen of the Sun,” director Taggart Siegel has become a backyard beekeeper himself – with a little help from his daughter, Olive, 5.

The buzzing hearts of Taggart Siegel's new documentary, 'Queen of the Sun,' are the honeybees, thousands of them.

And, no, the award-winning director of 'The Real Dirt on Farmer John,' who makes his home in Portland, didn't get stung severely during the making of the movie, which has its world theatrical premiere Sept. 17 at the Hollywood Theater.

Bitten, not much. Smitten, yes - enough that Siegel now raises bees in his own Mount Tabor backyard. He's hoping the new movie can do for the honeybee what his 2005 film did for the titular Farmer John and organic agriculture: force people to think in a whole new light.

Not, of course, that honeybees haven't been in the headlines plenty in the past few years, ever since late 2006, when scientists and beekeepers first reported widespread colony collapse disorder, or, translated out of science-ese, the inexplicable disappearance of untold numbers of worker bees from their hives.

Though we might not know it when we swat at them absentmindedly in the backyard during picnic season, bees are essential to humankind; without them, there is not only no amber-sweet honey, but nearly no pollination. Without pollination, there's no fertilization of dozens upon dozens of crops, from beets to watermelons and in between.

Four years on, no one has yet pinpointed the exact cause of colony collapse disorder, though theories abound, many of them explained in Siegel's documentary in exacting detail. They include pesticide use, malnutrition, parasites, and migratory beekeeping - the practice of trucking bees thousands of miles cross country to fertilize great swathes of a single crop.

There's no single, agreed-upon solution, either - though Siegel says that's what popular media has harped on in coverage of the bee epidemic, asking, 'We have this problem. How do we fix this? What is the shot we give to the bees to make this go away?'

That's where Siegel's movie comes in, with its celebration of biodynamic apiculturists and rooftop beekeepers, of the 'bee sanctuaries' that are blooming all across the country and beyond, an unexpectedly hopeful ending for such a foreboding subject.

Collective Eye

Siegel is relatively new to Oregon, touching down in Portland after 'Farmer John,' which played in theaters nationally and racked up numerous awards, including at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Like so many before him, he and his wife moved from the Bay Area once they had a child, 5-year-old Olive, seeking a less expensively crowded life.

It was for Olive's sake, for her whole generation, Siegel says, that he wanted to make a movie about the bees' plight. Filming took him from Oregon to New Zealand and from to Switzerland to The Bronx, with stops along the way to interview experts like journalist/food activist Michael Pollan and slow food guru Carlo Petrini. Interspersed throughout is the story of softspoken Gunther Hauk, who built the world's first bee sanctuary in Southern Illinois, a hopeful model for the promise of biodynamic beekeeping.

Ultimately and paradoxically, Hauk suggests, colony collapse disorder may be for the best, forcing big agriculture, governments and consumers to pay attention to what the honeybees are telling us, before it's too late.

The documentary, begun at the start of the recession, was shot on a shoestring budget, with backing from plenty of small donors and Siegel's own money. It will be marketed and distributed by Collective Eye, Inc., the nonprofit media production and distribution organization that Siegel co-founded, which now has offices in southeast Portland.

Collective Eye is also opening up new markets for documentarians from Portland and beyond.

So far, a handful of local filmmakers are on their roster, including two films on Cambodian human rights issues by Skye Fitzgerald of SpinFilm and one on the social and cultural impacts of poster art in late 20th century Poland by Oregon State professor Andrea Marks.

Collective Eye took over marketing 'Farmer John,' Siegel said, when he was unhappy with the grassroots marketing done by that film's distributors. This time around, he says, he and producer Jon Betz are taking no chances with 'Queen of the Sun.' The movie has played already at a handful of film festivals, including in Nashville, Seattle and Brooklyn, and has been screened for small invite-only audiences in Portland during the past few months.

At the Hollywood, it's scheduled for a two-week run, with frequent theme nights, Betz says: one night, audience members will be asked to come decked out in their best bee costumes; another night's showing will be sponsored by the Audubon Society and include a raffle and prizes.

'If we do well in Portland, every independent theater in the country will want it,' Siegel says.

A national rollout is planned for Earth Day 2011.

Saving ourselves

Siegel and Collective Eye's locating in Portland is a hopeful sign for the city's documentary film scene, says Ian McCluskey, who heads NW Documentary, a Portland nonprofit that supports local documentarians.

'As a documentary community, Portland is still small, fragmented and underfunded - you can have people doing really great work alone in their attic,' McCluskey said. 'Hopefully as the community grows we will become more tight-knit, working collaboratively together.'

The city is blessed to have a strong independent theater network, both McCluskey and Siegel say, a boon for would-be documentary filmmakers, though even if you screen a film, there's no guarantee an audience will show up, warns Tom Ranieri, owner of Cinema 21 in Northwest Portland, where 'The Real Dirt on Farmer John' was a solid hit during its theatrical release.

'There are certain titles that pop out and people will go and support in a movie theater, but it's only a certain number of films that have that viability,' Ranieri says.