Two Irish filmmakers examine the plight of the honeybee by charting one California beekeeping family’s woes. It might just turn out to be the best-reviewed Irish movie of the year.
It’s a documentary all about the sudden decline in our buzzing, honey-making, pollinating friend the bee, and it might just turn out to be the best-reviewed Irish movie of the year.
The American film industry bible Variety loves it, stating that Ross McDonnell and Carter Gunn’s film “may be the most aesthetically beautiful documentary of the season, as well as one of the more urgent and intelligent”.
The winner of the First Appearance Award at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, Colony is also being tipped as an Oscar contender, thanks to its inclusion in the prestigious IDA DocuWeeks programme.
So, you know, Ross McDonnell’s got to be pretty darned chuffed with himself.
“I am indeed,” says the young Irish filmmaker who first made his name here as a stills photographer on the likes of Paris Noir and Lance Daly’s Kisses. “Making this film was pretty much a labour of love, and, as with so many documentaries, you never really know if you’re going to find an audience. Already, the reception has been overwhelming. For Carter and me, the fact that it’s getting released in cinemas in Ireland is a big, big deal. The reviews and the accolades have been amazing, but the real kick for us would be people from our home country actually going to see it…”
Here’s hoping. A visually beautiful film, Colony’s real strength lies in the passion of the people up on screen as they see their livelihood suffer from a drastic, sudden and mysterious decline in honeybees. Most striking of all is the Steppi family. Part Norman Rockwell, part Norman Bates, these Californian farmers dedicate their lives to the honeybee and are soon turning to God and on one another when the industry starts dropping its prices.
PAUL BYRNE: This is your first feature as a director. What was the spark here?
ROSS MCDONNELL: The initial spark for the film came from a friend who alerted me to the fact that honeybees were dying and nobody knew why. When I began to follow the news reports from the US that billions of honeybees were simply deserting their hives, never to be seen again, it sounded like something from the plot of a science fiction film. I wrote up a treatment to go out and investigate what was happening and our producers Macdara Kelleher and Morgan Bushe saw the potential for a documentary that appealed to their sensibilities. Colony developed from there.
Feels a little like Michael Moore remaking The Last Picture Show at times – what drew you to the Seppi family?
We first met Lance and Victor Seppi, the two brothers, at a local beekeepers meeting in California. We filmed them during the meeting before we actually had a chance to chat with them. Lance is about six foot five and Victor not far behind them and they had this incredible look, like something from Grapes of Wrath, something truly American.
The average age for commercial beekeepers in the US is about 62 – it’s a real dying industry, so to find to young men, Lance 20 and Victor 17, who were starting their own business in the middle of this total collapse of the beekeeping industry was something very special that we knew we had to follow up on.
There’s a lightness of touch here, but I’m guessing you had to be careful not to make light of these God-fearing farming folk…
At the end of the day, while the Seppi family are definitely in that bracket of Conservative American Christians, for us as filmmakers, that was not really the story at hand. They’re a hugely open and curious family, and ultimately their story is the story about what all families go through in order to survive and prosper.
It’s true that they’re very much guided by their faith and they’re the first to admit that they’re not the ‘average’ family – seven home-schooled children, mostly Vegan, rural, and living and working together – but in our minds that made them all the more interesting as subjects for the film.
The Seppi family are indeed wonderful – struggle in the editing suite with that fine line between eccentric and hokey?
All documentaries come together in the editing suite and my co-director Carter Gunn is really a master in the edit – the shape and structure, the music and the flow of the film are things that all bear testament to his talents.
In shaping the story of the Seppi family we had this very clear metaphor of the family as a colony that would reflect and mirror the complexities and structures of that of a beehive. That was our guiding principle. We wanted audiences to empathize with the Seppis and their struggles to keep their business alive. Also the film kind of became a little bit about the ‘lead’ character Lance and his growing up during the time we spent with the Seppis. In business he learned a lot of hard lessons that year and also had to make some of those tough decisions while trying to keep everyone happy; his family and the farmers who pay him and keep him in business. The fine line that he treaded was the fine line that we found in the editing room.
Many people will view Colony Collapse Disorder as another battle between Mother Nature and Father Business. Did you draw any conclusions yourself as these farmers went after the big pesticide manufacturers?
I think that’s a good point and in the time since we finished the film that’s become ever clearer. We’re fortunate that we can make really luxurious choices about our food just now. Most of us our conscious about where our food comes from and there’s never been more awareness about food and the environment. The honeybee and the commercial beekeeping industry is a vital part of food production in the US, pollinating directly and indirectly every third bite of food that we eat. Agri-business has replaced agriculture in the United States, with huge tracts of single crop farms and a guiding principle of monoculture taking over the farming industry. With the world’s population set to double in the next fifty years or so, the problems of food supply, how we’re going to feed ourselves, I worry about the idea of a natural balance in our ecosystem in the coming years.
The belief in the movie seems to be that people won’t truly care about such disasters as the vanishing honeybee until they see half-empty shelves at their local supermarket. Was that part of your reason for making Colony?
One of the much-touted phrases during the making of Colony was that the disappearing honeybee represented a kind of ‘canary in the coal mine’, that the dying bees represented the beginning of the end for the survival of other species and ultimately ourselves. I think that was a great starting point for the film but ultimately we wanted to explore the issue and also to make people aware about what goes in to putting food on the table.
Also, before making this film I had no idea that beekeepers put millions of beehives on the back of trucks and hauled them around the US for most of the year, pollinating all of the apples, cranberries, almonds and many of the other fifty or so fruits and vegetables that they help to produce.
I just thought they just made honey. That, among the many other amazing things about the honeybee, was a real eye opener.
Esther, the matriarch of the Seppi family, doesn’t seem to realise that America is on its knees – three million made homeless last year alone. Or do you feel her anger at falling prices in her industry was justified?
Esther, like any other mother is really just looking out for her children. In the film she is cast as a kind of queen bee of the family and she is definitely a matriarch in the Seppi household. She’s worried about her children and about their financial state of affairs during very tough times for American families. I think her anger about the falling prices for the Seppi’s beehives, which is one of the main dramatic stories in the film, is justified. Perhaps she exhibited a bit of tough motherly love while we were filming with them but it was a tense time and emotions were running high.
Great response to the film – Variety singing its praises, the festival circuit lapping it up. What’s the hope here, commercially?
We’re delighted at the reaction to the film so far, audiences everywhere we’ve been with it have reacted really well to the film and the critical response to the movie has been amazing. We’re surprised and delighted with how it’s gone so far.
Like all creative endeavors, from music to art to film, in this time, documentaries are no exception: they need support from the fans. We hope that people power will help make the film as successful as possible, to keep it in the cinemas, to make it an event that film fans will enjoy, that environmentalists will be able to discuss and that the average punter will enjoy watching. That’s really all; bottom line is that you make a film for an audience and we’re hoping to get as many people as possible to see the film.
There is a possibility here of preaching to the converted, that anyone going to see Colony is probably doing so whilst eating organic honey from a lentil spoon, but you’ve said before that this film wasn’t made as an eco battle cry. Feel you’ll be drawn into that debate?
So many people are passionate about the environment and ecological issues that our audiences often have people who are more informed about the crisis of the disappearing honeybee than we are. The central issue of the debate is whether or not certain pesticides that are manufactured by huge multi-national corporations like Bayer Cropscience are killing the honeybee. The debate is a core part of the film but there was just no proof or evidence while we were filming to confirm that this was the case. The film reflects that and indeed the beekeepers frustrations with this fact.
Many fans of documentaries want to have their beliefs about certain things confirmed, oftentimes myself included. Who wants to see a chemical corporation threaten our environment for profit? Who wants to see BP dodge their way out of culpability for the Gulf Oil Spill? No one does.
With Colony though, myself and Carter felt that taking an activist approach to the environmental issues in the film was not the best way to present the story we wanted to tell and while the environmental angle is part of this story, it’s not the whole story. We chose to pose questions with this film and to try and make something that was about human lives rather than make a Michael Moore style film. I think we’re all happy with the way the film turned out.
What’s up next for you guys? Has Jerry Bruckheimer been calling?
Jerry hasn’t called just yet, but if he’s interested in an amazing film about heroic honeybees battling the forces of evil we’re the guys to make it happen…
Interview By Paul Byrne
Colony opens at the IFI on Fri July 23rd for one week.
Co-directors Ross McDonnell and Carter Gunn will be present for a Q&A following the 6.10pm screening on the 23rd.