There’s a dirty word for documentaries that set out to make an argument: Propaganda. But not all films that try to cajole and persuade us of their positions should be labeled as such. Take this week’s new releases, Pandora’s Promise and More Than Honey, films that eschew heavy-handed agitprop to explore issues with ambiguity and eloquence.
Although it’s been labeled as some kind of pro-nuke diatribe, Pandora’s Promise is as nuanced as it is credible. Director Robert Stone’s presence is never overt, but you can almost feel his ambivalence about his own thesis—as if he, too, needed a lot of convincing. If nuclear power is the world’s safest and most effective future energy source, as the documentary ultimately argues, Stone doesn’t entirely forget the queasy implications of this proposition either, starting the film off in the Japanese city of Fukushima, one year after its devastating nuclear catastrophe. In a conversation with Mark Lynas, an environmentalist-turned-nuclear-energy advocate, the question “Are you still pro-nuclear?” is posed within the context of the haunting and abandoned city, revealing the difficulty of embracing the position.
But as Pandora’s Promise proceeds, it becomes less about fear—a la the scare tactics of films such as An Inconvenient Truth or Countdown to Zero—and more about necessary tradeoffs. As one character says, “To be anti-nuclear is to be pro-fossil fuels.” While Stone certainly instills trepidation in the viewer, it’s not through the kind of doomsday talk or computer-generated images of cataclysm, but via the simple presentation of the very difficult challenges of powering the lives of billions of people. “How much energy is the world going to use,” wonders one expert. “When you look at the numbers, it’s a sobering exercise.” Sobering, yes; apocalyptic, no. We should appreciate Stone for taking the less rabblerousing approach.
By cutting through the inflammatory fear-based rhetoric that is often associated with nuclear power, Pandora’s Promise is able to present evidence that often gets forgotten in our heated energy debates. The Chernobyl disaster, for instance, is frequently cited as powerful proof of nuclear power’s dangers, but the film makes clear that the infamous Russian reactors lacked the safeguards that are standard on most of the world’s nuclear plants. Arguments such as these are certainly not as thrilling as The China Syndrome, but in many ways, Pandora’s Promise takes a far riskier approach in our era of sensationalism: it mounts a logical argument.
If Promise‘s position benefits from intelligence and research, More Than Honey‘s thesis profits from its poetry. There have been a surprising number of documentaries that chronicle the world’s declining bee populations (Silence of the Bees, Colony, Vanishing of the Bees, Queen of the Sun) and Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof’s More Than Honey, also opening this week, is a welcome addition to the club. By cutting back and forth between industrial beekeepers based, at the beginning of the film, in the vast almond fields of California, and a more artisanal family-led bee-keeping operation in the Swiss mountainside, it might seem initially that Imhoof is painting a stark dichotomy between Big Honey vs. local agriculture. But while Imhoof’s film ultimately comes down hard on what could be called the international honeybee industrial-complex, he also shows that no one is immune to the dreaded effects of “colony collapse disorder,” not even the most grandfatherly of bee cultivators.
The film is most affecting, however, when it’s simply tracking the industrious work of the bees themselves. Involving without anthropomorphizing, Imhoof’s micro-cinematography of bees coursing through air, building their honeycombs and protecting their newly consecrated queen, is fascinating to behold. Extreme close-ups are familiar to anyone who has seen a nature documentary, but Imhoof’s images are lyrical, at times even forbidding: As the bees are transported across the country by semi-truck, Imhoof’s cameras witness an intimately frightening invasion, as a Varroa mite sucks the life out of an unsuspecting bee. It might sound cliché, but the film truly gives its viewers a greater understanding and appreciation for these winged insects that are so crucial to many of our crops and our flowers.
Another sequence is just as haunting. Taking a break from his two main characters, Imhoof travels to China to witness a world without bees. Ominously, we see a group of poor migrant workers hand-pollinating a field of flowers, one by one by one. Not since Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, another beautifully photographed chronicle of devastation, has a film so eerily captured the effects of humankind’s environmental destruction, and our desperate counter-maneuvers to save ourselves.
This year’s annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival also begins this week (Docutopia will cover it in a subsequent column), and though Pandora’s Promise and More Than Honey are not part of that annual showcase, they achieve and embody the kind of nuanced artistry to which all activist filmmaking should aspire.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.