Ben Knight was the staff photographer for the Telluride Daily Planet throughout the 90s and early 2000s, and despite the fact that he is extremely shy, soft-spoken, and very modest, his award-winning photojournalism made him something of a local celebrity. He started making films, and his keen eye and editing skills earned him instant success. When he was called on stage at Mountainfilm in 2008 at the Palm Theater, the roar of the standing ovation for his film "Red Gold" was overwhelming. Knight and his partner at Felt Soul Media, Travis Rummel, were in shock. It was a classic Ben Knight moment: his face was scarlet, he stammered awkwardly, and tried to crack a few jokes at his own expense before rushing off the stage.
Ever since then, Knight and Felt Soul Media have been making acclaimed environmental documentaries and beautiful films—most, but not all, about fishing. He's become an even bigger celebrity. He is still more comfortable behind the lens than in front of it, and he still finds it awkward to talk about himself or be interviewed, but he sat down for a Q&A with Telluride.com about his latest National Geographic film, "The Last Honey Hunter," which premieres at Mountainfilm this spring. The film is set in Nepal's Hongu River Valley, where the Kulung people practice an ancient religion and tradition that involves climbing sheer cliffs to collect honey from the world's largest honeybees. The honey is believed to have entheogenic, hallucinatory/medicinal properties. (Photo by Renan Ozturk.)
Q: When did you start making movies, and what was exciting about switching over from shooting photography for the Planet to making films? At what moment did you realize you wanted to do this full time?
A: I started fooling around with filmmaking in 2004, I think. After working at the Daily Planet for ten years and topping out at a whopping $15 an hour, I was feeling ready to try something new. Filmmaking had been on my mind at that point for a while because of the influence Mountainfilm had on me since I was 19. The dream was to be able to engage an audience with a story in a dark room so intensely that the need to pee was ignored. I knew a good still photo was totally capable of capturing someone's attention, but there was something about adding dialogue, music and motion that seemed like a whole other level of storytelling to me.
I'd have to say the night we premiered "Red Gold" at the Palm was a turning point. When you realize you're actually capable of making an audience give a #$% about something they may have never thought about before. I don't know...that's what it's all about, I guess.
Q: What is your approach to storytelling?
A: I guess my approach to storytelling is to constantly obsess over the balance of pacing, intrigue and emotion to the point of total exhaustion. The second your pacing becomes laborious or too fast you've lost the viewer. The second someone can't relate to or appreciate (on some level) the subject matter or the character, they're gone. I don't want to sound like I'm complaining, but I find it insanely hard.
Q: How did you learn about the honey hunters? What sparked your interest in telling this story?
A: I lucked into "The Last Honey Hunter." I think I was maybe fourth on a list of people more talented than I am but they all died or had to go to weddings or something. When Renan Ozturk calls, you answer, but you know damn well you're about to get way the hell over your head in something that's going to scare you. "The Last Honey Hunter" is a story that Ben Ayers of the dZi Foundation had been keeping his eye on for six years until he was finally able to put a team together to make a film and get a National Geographic article.
Q: What was the filming of this like? Were you in Nepal? Did you get close to the hives?
A: I'd have to say the shoot was the most mentally and physically demanding thing I've done. The whole trip was just heavy. There are some seriously spooky things going on in those lowland Nepal jungles. Cameras would just stop working, drones would fly in the wrong direction, unexplainable messages would pop up on our phones. Leeches. So many damn leeches. The bees ended up being one of the least scary parts thanks to some pretty elaborate bee suits.
Q: How does the story of "The Last Honey Hunter" show a bigger narrative about the changing of the environment and the way that climate change and development are putting traditional practices in jeopardy?
A: The film hints at climate change possibly moving the bees further from the villages, but the locals didn't seem like they could definitively blame it on that. They seemed more convinced that the encroachment of people and pollution had more to do with declining bee populations. But really the film is just a simple portrait of a man and a culture — no white folks bitching about leech bites or diarrhea.
Q: Are you switching from fish to bees, or was this just a unique story that you were interested in? And what's next for you?
A: My hope was to make a film that reminded me of the sense of awe I felt when I first experienced Mountainfilm. These days, folks have seen just about everything. This was my chance to hopefully give back that feeling that has driven me for 18 years.
What's next? Ugh, I have to go back to doing less inspiring stuff that pays actual money. I'm already in big trouble for spending an entire winter editing a 30-minute passion project. I have to say, though, I've never been this proud of anything and this excited to share something.