'What's At Stake' Documentary Film Series

'Swarm Season': It's all about the bees

Documentary explores fight to save bees, stop NASA telescope

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NORTH ADAMS — In the documentary "Swarm Season," director Sarah Christman makes bees the centerpiece of a far-reaching work that wraps together climate change, indigenous culture struggles and astronomical research. What results is a partly abstract burst of beauty with a palpable foreboding lurking underneath.

The last installment in Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's film series "What's At Stake," "Swarm Season" screens in Club B10 Thursday, March 5, at 7 p.m. Christman will be available after the screening for a Q&A.

Christman started keeping bees in Brooklyn, where she lives, which prompted her to consider a film about bees. A beekeeping friend in Hawaii connected her with Alison and her daughter, Manu, who became the primary subjects of "Swarm Season."

Christman's first phone conversation with Alison in 2015 revealed her very different approach to beekeeping. She and her daughter gathered wild bees to breed colonies that are disease-resistant. The conversation also supplied a further aspect to the film — the indigenous battle to stop the construction of a giant telescope on top of the mountain Mauna Kea. Christman immediately looked up an image of the proposed telescope and connections began to form.

"It's a grid of hexagonal mirrors and I was initially struck by this connection between the form of this telescope on a massive scale that mirrored the structure of the honeybee comb," she said. "I knew I wanted to draw a line between those two and I knew it wouldn't be a precise line, so with all the intersecting threads I intuitively knew that the film was not going to be just a character study of Alison and Manu."

"I was interested in doing something that reflected much more of this macrocosm, and so the process of making the film was creating a web that was complex enough to sustain these connections and make a kaleidoscopic portrait."

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Christman spent the next four years working on the documentary, filming in Hawaii for three Septembers in a row, and then spending the periods in between editing and building the connections that first struck her after the phone conversation.

"There are so many more connections that I discovered that are on the editing room floor," she said. "But ultimately, you've got to focus."

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The film speaks for itself, literally, partly because of its lack of explanatory narration. This was a deliberate choice by Christman, whose goal, along with cinematographer Zara Popovici, hoped to recreate the experience of being there rather than having that explained.

"I had this very personal response to living in this very rural area on the big island, which is a very immersive place where the natural world is pummeling you and blowing you away at every moment," said Christman. "It was important to me to find a cinematic language for that feeling."

Christman says that she generally dislikes omniscient narrators in documentaries, and the lack of one in "Swarm Season" gives the viewers space and freedom to build their own ideas about the situation being presented.

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"I'm much more interested in drawing connections, planting signposts for the viewer to allow them to have their own train of thought," she said.

Key to that presentation is the sound design, one part of which is the score by German musician Vika Kirchenbauer. She composed the basis for the score early in the process and its served as the Christman's working soundtrack during the filming process. Kirchenbauer later expanded the initial compositions, and Christman and sound designer Kevin T. Allen deconstructed her recordings, isolating harmonics of the electronic music, which Kirchenbauer sourced from Christian chorale music recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, and aligning it to the same frequency as bees.

"Kevin and I were really interested in creating the sonic space where the score wasn't just laid over the rest of the sounds, but rather really integrated with all the layers that we were building," said Christman, "which included the bees, but also lava, underwater sounds and all of the rich field recordings we did on the island."

Christman explains the effort to create an immersive, almost abstract, experience for the audience as one with a practical purpose — clearing out the typical language in an effort to present the world on its own terms, allowing it to make its own arguments. This means, as Christman puts it, the film had to "remove human language and thought and raise the volume of all the other kinds of information that is out is out there for us to experience."

"Perhaps that's the strongest way that we can get the message to transform this broken relationship that we have with the environment."


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