Category Archives: Film

A One-sided Film Worth Seeing

Here is a plug for a delightful and significant film by Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel, a couple of inspired and inspiring social documentary filmmakers of some merit and promise. Siegel has been around the block a few times and has an impressive body of work including the well-received The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Betz seems to have emerged on the scene more recently. Their film Queen of the Sun is deserving of your attention. The issue is real, the facts are good, and with a couple of caveats kept clearly in mind, you’ll be better for having seen it.

Promotional flier

The film begins with Rudolf Steiner, the early 20th century Austrian philosopher and, perhaps more familiarly, the progenitor of Waldorf pedagogy. In 1923 (2 years before his death) Steiner published a series of lectures on the biology and the community of honey bees. Famously, he warned that if modern apiculture of the time continued to meddle with and manipulate the natural life cycle of bees, we would see an alarming collapse in global honey bee populations in the span of 80 to 100 years.

The prediction comes to light today mostly, I think, because it seems to have come true. Isn’t that right? Had nothing come of it, it seems to me we would never be citing it.

In any case, it has – and is – coming true. Commercial honey bee populations are declining in this country consistently by 30-50% annually, much of what we eat is dependent on honey bees pollination, and people are concerned about where this might lead. Common sense eater, sustainability activist, and wonderful writer, Michael Pollan is quoted in the film saying that 4 of every 10 bites of everything we eat is the result of pollination. It is a seemingly obvious connection – without honey bees we would not enjoy nearly so many almonds.

The film proceeds from that premise in typical documentary style, from alarming factoid to alarmist interpretation, to persuade us that the bees are in peril, that we caused it, and that we can do something about it if we care enough and if we develop an enlightened perspective. (You can sense my caveat, I bet.)

The film is not objective (but I didn’t want it to be) or balanced (and I was grateful that it took a stand), and it wafts into philosophy and mysticism without warning (which is my own proclivity, as well.) It is a position statement and a rallying cry – and as such it succeeds. I am not sure there is an anti-honey bee statement to be made. Still, the commercial beekeepers come out looking criminal, interested in the bottom line and next year’s income. The only large-scale beekeeper interviewed is shown saying, “It’s a financial concern. We are in it to make a living.” The issue is clearly more complicated than that. Consumers have to bear some of the culpability for their carefree consumption of monoculture crops – almonds, corn, soybeans.

And the film sidesteps entirely the issue of how bees came to be in this country in the first place. The film’s implication is that we need to get back to a wilder, more natural state in which bees live on their own and pollinate without human interventions. The historical fact is that honey bees were introduced intentionally to this county only in 1622 – it is a glaring omission to ignore the fact that honeybees themselves are an invasive species. There simply are no wild hives in North America. They are all feral and introduced and non-native. The film does not take up this issue, but instead takes for granted that bees are here, for us, and we must be their caretakers.

But in the end, from this reviewer’s perspective, it is a worthy viewing. There are wonderful scenes of deeply connected and charismatic nature activists doing what feeds their souls. There are intriguing philosophical and spiritual digressions, and there is a strong message of human place in nature, not as dominator or manipulator, but as stewards.

And it presents the sexy side of the issue seductively. It is easy to get on board with this cause and to feel good about doing your part for a fuzzy, softly buzzing insect that frequents flowers and makes something as sweet and sensuous as honey – sometimes stinging when we misstep in its presence but giving up its life in the gesture. As one student remarked in the afterglow of the film last night, “I think I’m going to get a hive.”

The Wall of Death

The photo is taken from the North Face Facebook page.

Here is a treat. Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser, young soldiers in the German army in 1936, care more more mountains than for the military. We first meet them as they are scrubbing urinals for returning late to base after a climbing trip. The CO comes to see if they have learned their lesson. “Can’t you read your watches?” he bellows, to which Hinterstoisser, standing at attention and staring straight ahead, answers in full formal address, “Sir. We don’t have watches, sir!” Their work detail is subsequently tripled.

It is a classic scene that illustrates the conflict inherent in addicted alpinists: the uber-relevance of climbing and the comparative irrelevance of anything else – time, duty, even Hitler’s army. Later the two quit to try to be the first to climb the North Face of the Eiger, and what follows is a gripping retelling of true events on what was known as the Wall of Death.

Interwoven are important and well developed sub-stories of honor, integrity, and what matters most. In one amazing scene that you will have to see to fully understand, a young journalist, just starting out and eager to make her name as a photographer, looks at her editor who is handing her a camera, and cans the whole deal by saying, “I didn’t come here to take pictures.”  In one short sentence, she nukes her editor and her journalism career, asserts herself, and redefines her reasons for being in Switzerland at all.  It quickens the pulse.

Another aspect of the film of no mean significance is its historical portrayal 30’s era mountaineering.  Belaying, rappelling, and ascending looked a lot different in the days before ascenders, ATCs, and figure-eights.  Rope in those days was a three-strand twist of what looked like hempen twine, and there is one scene in the film in which Andi and Toni are hammering out their own pitons in preparation for the climb – leading this reviewer to conclude that chief among the factors responsible for the explosive popularity of climbing over the last 40 years is that by the 1970’s if you wanted to climb, you didn’t also have to be a blacksmith with a full-furnace hot forge in your garage.

It is great storytelling.  Subtitled, so be ready to read.  Interestingly, all of my kids watched it all the way through and enjoyed it even though their collective tolerance for subtitles is probably three lines long.

Here is more info.  Have Netflix send it to you.  There is enduring truth to be found on the Wall of Death.