Film Review: Honeyland

To Bee, Or Not To Bee: That Is The Question

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Hatidze Muratova
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What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words “Macedonian beekeepers”? … Nothing, right? It’s OK. Beekeeping in Macedonia is probably as far removed from your daily life as possible. By the same token, when it comes to Esoteric Topics for Award-Winning Documentaries, “apiarists in the Balkan Peninsula” pretty much tops the list. Which is a shame, really, because Honeyland, from filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, is as as lustrously composed, patiently observed and thematically important a documentary drama as you could hope for.

If your cousin Becky’s Facebook feed is to be believed (and why wouldn’t it?), bees are crucially important to life on Earth and critically endangered. Thankfully,
Honeyland is as much about cultural tradition as it is about ecology, and any message it has to deliver is presented organically and without heavy-handed editorial interjection.

Shot over the course of three years, the film follows Hatidze Muratova, an older woman of Turkish descent living in an all-but-abandoned village in the Macedonian highlands. There is no electricity, no running water, no paved roads. Hatidze lives with a cat, a dog and her elderly mother. She scratches out a living as a wild beekeeper, hiking dutifully up the cliffsides to capture wild honeybees and spirit them back to her traditional, cone-shaped beehives. She uses no gloves, no modern equipment. She even sings lovingly to her bees and sticks to a strict “half for me, half for you” rule when it comes to gathering the honey.

Honeyland is taken up with quiet, contemplative observation of Hatidze’s lonely life. She tends to her bees. She squabbles with her mother—who has been bedridden for four years. (“I have become like a tree,” declares mom.) Occasionally, she treks to a market in the city to sell her sweet crop. But mostly, she stares off into the dim candlelight of her claustrophobic shack with a look that belies decades of sacrifice and regret (What if she had married? What if she had left?)—yet conversely radiates a lifetime of strength and resolve. She is, after all the last female “beehunter” in Europe—the defender of a tradition that dates back thousands of years, yet is all but dead in today’s corporate-driven agricultural world. And if Honeyland did nothing but focus on this intriguing woman’s weathered face, it would be mesmerizing.

Honeyland’s “narrative” takes a twist, however, when a herd of new neighbors shows up in a travel trailer, countless kids and chickens disgorging onto the rocky streets of Hatidze’s isolated hometown. These newcomers (also Turks, by chance) are itinerant cattle ranchers. Hatidze is soon chasing runaway cows from her beehives. The din of kids and cattle grows steadily more deafening. Surprisingly, though, the rowdy children inject a certain amount of color and energy into Hatidze’s life, and she adjusts well to the newly crowded conditions, befriending this new family and doting on the children.

But the family’s father, Hussein, is driven by financial woes. His teeming clan needs money. And his stumbling skills as a cattle rancher aren’t enough to feed all those mouths. So he takes a cue from Hatidze and tries his hand at beekeeping. Hussein’s property is quickly overtaken by piles of modular wooden beehives, gleaming white Tyvek beekeeping suits and other modern conveniences. He’s attempting to do what Hatdze does, but on a much larger (one might say “capitalist”) scale. Unfortunately, he’s disinclined to listen to the hard-won lessons of his neighbor. Soon, Hussein’s oversized enterprise is threatening to wipe out Hatidze’s humble operation—and maybe even the local environment. The metaphor at the heart of
Honeyland becomes obvious: Do we live in harmony with nature, or do we try to bend it to our human will?

Like a lot of modern documentaries,
Honeyland dispenses with narration and interview footage and other contextual niceties. Instead, it’s a tightlipped, “observational” affair. (Given the insect at the center of it all, it seems like a misnomer to call it a “fly on the wall” documentary.) Like Vicktor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela or Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain, the film is in close visual harmony with the rhythms of nature, the shifting of the winds, the dropping of the leaves, the coming and going of the seasons—which is another way of saying, of course, that it is the sort of film that requires a patient eye. At times, watching Honeyland is akin to staring at one of Monet’s “Haystack” paintings—an impossibly beautiful composition of honeys, browns, khakis, wheats, ambers and tans. But its joys are largely silent and passive.

Honeyland has a hypnotic quality. In many ways it might as well be shot on Mars, so far removed is it from our modern-day American lives. But this only makes the film more quizzical and absorbing. The antiquated rural lifestyle it portrays is an almost painfully hardscrabble, close-to-the-land existence. The thought of living so close in to nature that the slightest change in setting (a new species, a burned field, a change in weather) could disrupt your entire world is both frightening and fascinating. And once you realize that these reverberations in nature ripple all the way up the food chain to us Westerners with our smartphones and our curbside delivery, you’ll know what essential viewing Honeyland really is.
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