The beauty of a documentary is it can draw you into a world of niches and esoteric interests and give you background for a conversation piece at the next diatribe on problems facing the world you should happen up.
Colony has at its disposal, a great keystone of nature to hinge its story on (that honey bees are responsible for the pollination of huge tracts of agricultural crops world-wide) which could whet any inquisitive persons appetite. Add to this that millions of bees are unexpectedly dying without reason or known cause and you have an unquestionable launching pad for a documentary. However, from the off this documentary struggles to offer a coherent and complete account. Firstly, the dynamics of the role played by bees and the industry that has grown from this (bee keepers effectively farm and sell boxes of bees to pollinate crops as part of a seasonal cycle of production) is not explained very well. Twenty minutes in, the documentary has laid out its stall – populations of bees dying, no explanation – and seems unsure how to progress the story. More time should have been taken to introduce us to the world of bee keeping and its role in the propagation of crops. The audience knows populations of bees are being decimated, we can see that bee keepers are up in arms, but the viewer is left uncertain as to why we should care.
The failure to fully portray the magnitude of the implications of this colony collapse is the documentary’s main flaw. This is perhaps not entirely of the filmmakers own doing; admittedly, in portraying the collapse of honey bee colonies, the documentary must attempt to construct a full, satisfying tale to which there is ultimately no end point as yet. However, had the documentary hit us with the serious potential effects of the collapse – barren fields, empty produce sections in supermarkets – or even ventured into all the ways that the output of pollination and tillage form part of our days, this could have been a hard-hitting piece of work. Instead, there is minimal, brief mention of these impacts and they are saved for the final few moments of running time.
The film fills its time by flitting from the perspective of a family of beekeepers, to the ramshackle lobbying response of representatives of the bee keeping industry and various talking heads pondering the causes and likely outcomes of the collapse. It by and large lets us infer our own scenarios. The predicament faced by the family at the heart of the story forms the most interesting tenet of the documentary. Whatever questions the documentary leaves unanswered it clearly puts this family in the firing line of events they cannot control and seem unprepared for. We, the objective viewer, can see the wood from the trees in a way they cannot, and fear for the short-term view they seem to take. They are dependent on an income from farming bees; the economy is crashing down around them and they are playing hardball when realistically they have very little of an upper hand. In the first year of a wider economic slump and also with the bee keeping industry hit by an unexplained crisis, the family seem naive and inexperienced in managing a business, so that you wonder what might have befallen them in the time since the documentary was made. Herein lies the story of this documentary and where it succeeds, even though much may not be spelt out on screen. The scenes showing the tensions between the family members, particularly the matriarch of the house and eldest son, and the sons attempting to negotiate contracts with producers draw you in. It does not bode well, it is the best insight into how livelihoods and industry could unfurl in light of these events.
Ultimately, this documentary does a far more able job capturing a snap shot of a family than it does creating urgency about the colony destruction or offer a piece of investigative film that would keep you drawn in. Colony tells a large story and a small story, one of an ecological phenomenon, and then captures the story of the people caught up in its ramifications. It should be prime feeding ground for facts and new perspectives, knowledge of the world of production for us consumers and give us material to observe and analyse, whether it be the moments caught by the camera unexpectedly or observances of human frailty. Colony succeeds in some aspects of this, but it feels like it is missing a third act or maybe even a follow up to answer our questions but also to show the documentary makers can pursue a query and construct a more satisfying answer.
# Format: Colour, DVD-Video, NTSC
# Language English
# Region: Region 1
# Aspect Ratio: 4:3 – 1.33:1
# Number of discs: 1
# Classification: NR (Not Rated) (US MPAA rating. See details.)
# Studio: New Video Group
# DVD Release Date: 29 Mar 2011
# Run Time: 88 minutes