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Preaching to the hive

Food+Farm scrutinizes the ups and downs of agricultural sustainability, and the eco-documentary
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  May 19, 2010

 FILM052110_foodfarm_main
WHITHER THE BEES? A scene from Colony.

What’s the most effective way to make people care about the institutional problems with our industrial food economy? It’s, of course, a question of heightening urgency. Fish are disappearing from our waters. Pesticides are corrupting our food supply, and chemically-altered seeds are narrowing it, to the detriment of our nutrient-deprived soil. There are solutions to many of these problems — let’s diversify our farms, ease up on the fish consumption for a couple years, and focus on reducing the distance between farm and plate — but those answers aren’t cheap or fast.

Moreover, a critical mass of citizens need to organize and peddle some influence before there’s any real hope. Four documentaries featured during the third installment of the popular Food+Farm series, at SPACE Gallery from May 20 to 23, take very different approaches to examining a variety of issues revolving around sustainability and the need for popular action, and most will be followed by question-and-answer sessions with topical experts. Surprisingly — or not, depending on your taste for the ballooning eco-doc genre — it’s the least prescriptive film that’s the most provocative.

Showing Saturday, COLONY, co-directed by Carter Gunn (who edited the film) and Russ McDonnell (who shot it), is less concerned with the elusive cause or causes of colony collapse disorder (CCD) — which has led, by some estimates, to the disappearance of one-third of America’s bee population — than with the people of the industry, threatened and flummoxed by an economic downturn and the sudden deaths of the hives they carefully tend to. Its primary subjects are the Seppis, a deeply spiritual family in California whose hives are rented out to almond growers for pollination. In some circumstances, the causes of CCD appear obvious — large-scale beekeepers may raise their hives on unfertile land, depriving them of nutrients, for instance — but for the Seppis, who foster their bees with painstaking rigor and attention, CCD is both baffling and financially crippling.

Potential villains (climate change, pesticides) arise, and are debated by the keepers along with various scientists and businessmen (Gunn and McDonnell do an unusually good job of integrating their talking heads into the film as compelling characters), but it’s the sad, eerie struggle of people like the Seppis that make the film so successful. That, and McDonnell’s stunning digital photography, which (along with its lyrical tone) is nudging the film toward some comparisons with Terrence Malick’s peerless Days of Heaven.

Other Food+Farm entries are either artistically or tonally frustrating, but will nonetheless appeal to the choir to which they preach, and will be supplemented by good conversations. Friday night’s film, INGREDIENTS — written, directed, and edited by Robert Bates — plays out like a pleasant infomercial for a local and sustainable food supply. Despite a lack of resources and creativity, it still presents (in a swift and modestly uplifting 70 minutes) a more clear and coherent argument for the cause than Robert Kessler’s Oscar-nominated Food, Inc., which busily branded heroes and villains. If a bit self-satisfied, Ingredients is more digestible than Rupert Murray’s THE END OF THE LINE, which screens Sunday night. Based on the book by London journalist Charles Clover (who appears throughout), the film is a suitably righteous condemnation of overfishing by companies and industries large, small, and boutique, but its alarmist tone (typified by a bombastic score and dramatic narration by Ted Danson) is so oppressive that the film leaves you defeated rather than incited.

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  Topics: Features , Entertainment, Movies, Terrence Malick,  More more >
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