Monday, December 14, 2009



Ross McDonnell - co-director of Colony – meets me in Dublin fresh from the Toronto International Film Festival, where the buzz around his debut feature was great.

"Colony may be one of the most aesthetically beautiful documentaries of the season, as well as one of the more urgent and intelligent,” wrote Variety.

“The movie constitutes a satisfying addition to the blooming, buzzing field of social issue documentary,” wrote the New York Times.

In addition to the compliments of the newspapers at Toronto, McDonnell has recently heard that his debut film will also play at IDFA, one of the world’s most important documentary festivals. But, despite these successes, his biggest concern at present is that he is smashed broke - welcome to the world of documentary filmmaking.

One hopes, though, that the financial challenges of making documentaries won’t discourage McDonnell and his co-director, Carter Gunn, from pursuing future projects in the medium. This is a mature, intelligent, informed piece of work from two young filmmakers who clearly have more to give.

Colony is one of a number of bee movies that are emerging at present. These documentaries are prompted by the clear and present danger facing bees as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) leaves landscapes of empty beehives across America and beyond.

Now, those of you who spent your primary school education getting stung by bees and falling asleep in biology class might be surprised to hear that honeybees are actually quite important. Because they pollinate our plant-life, these noble, industrious creatures are central to our own survival on Earth. Einstein reputedly said that if the honeybee became extinct then man would only have four years left to live.

“It was actually falsely attributed to him,” McDonnell tells me. “It turns out that a bunch of disgruntled French beekeepers made it up and credited to him. Anyway, I read that and it’s a pretty powerful statement and I read all the statistics about the American beekeepers who ship bees back and forward across the US to pollinate every third bite you eat and I thought it was interesting material for a film.”

While the film interviews numerous beekeepers, it concentrates mostly on veteran beekeeper, David Mendes, and Lance and Victor Seppi, two young broth­ers starting out as beekeepers in tough economic times. As Mendes campaigns on behalf of all beekeepers, the Seppi’s try to keep their own business afloat.

The Seppi family is very much the emotional epicentre of this film. The observational footage of the family’s struggles is enthralling and one of the strongest aspects of the documentary. The story of their collapsing business, affected both by the struggles of the bees and the world economy allows the filmmakers to subtly get across the message that perhaps we have more in common with bees than we realise.

“When we met the Seppis they had seven children, they’re a home-school family and they’re actually really natural environmentalists - they live in the middle of the country, they grow their own food and they eat an almost entirely raw vegan diet. We started to think that they were a colony in their own right. We went with the thought that they were a colony, the United States was a colony and that the bees were a colony and we then looked at ways of interweaving these stories.”

One of the strengths of the film is its openness to all sides of the story. While CCD could have catastrophic effects on nature and society, nobody is fully sure what has caused the problem. Rather than standing back and pointing the finger at pesticide manufacturers, the filmmakers patiently pursued access to the corporation and let them put forward their side of the story. It turns out they might not be to blame.

Perhaps we are all to blame. One is left with the feeling that bees are more important than we realise, that our cavalier attitude towards them might lead to their demise and that our tendency to undervalue their importance might lead to a reduction in the beekeepers that look after them.

Colony is a tribute to what can be done with time, talent and a little money. Gunn and McDonnell spent the guts of two years immersed in the project, with McDonnell on camera and Gunn taking care of the edit. The film is stunningly shot and the two-man team clearly made the effort to develop the relationships and access necessary to tell the story well.

“If I can draw a parallel with feature filmmaking, what we wanted was to see the change come from within our characters. We were very lucky that we were given the time and the support to be able to see the change over time in our subjects and in the story. We were fortunate that the Irish Film Board and our producers at Fastnet Films gave us the support to do that. They never said, ‘where are you going with this.’ They were with us the whole way along.”

They all should be proud of this clever, powerful film.