This portrait of a Macedonian beekeeper eschews traditional documentary tropes in exchange for something infinitely more special.
Deep in the mountains of Macedonia, a middle-aged woman harvests honey from a small man-made located behind a rock on a cliffside. Inside the small hive live hundreds of honey bees, but the woman, sans protection, sticks her hand in to remove some of the honey. As she harvests, she mumbles something to herself: “Half for me. Half for you.” By leaving half the honey for the bees, who are unable to truly defend themselves, she knows that the next time she arrives, there’ll be more honey there, ripe for the taking.
This brief conversation between humanity and nature is the central argument of Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s exceptional documentary Honeyland, which interrogates the relationship between unregulated capitalism and nature using a variety of techniques that often cause the audience to forget its non-fiction. Though the film is advertised, correctly, as a documentary, it takes great pains to avoid many of the genre’s signifiers. Most notably, throughout the film, there’s never once a direct address to the camera. The filmmakers never make their presence known known to the audience, choosing instead to take a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach. Using exceptionally beautiful cinematography, the camera lingers on subjects who live their lives with a shocking level of honesty.
Take the film’s primary subject, for instance: Hatidze Muratova. Hatidze lives with her mother Nafize in a small abandoned village. To say that their living conditions are rough would be a gross understatement. Their single-room home has no electricity or running water, and Nafize’s infirmities leave her bedridden. Often their conversations lean bleaker. A late-in-the-movie conversation has them questioning the sustainability of their lifestyle, with Hatidze worriedly saying something along the lines of “If you were a baby, I’d carry you away from this place.” Their ability to live honestly under the camera leads to some of the films most heartbreaking, and hilarious moments, as their Grey Gardens-esque communication style slowly shatters to show their true emotional depth.
The same level of emotional depth is also found in the film’s other subjects, the Sam family, who move next door early on in the film. The Sams, led by stern patriarch Hussein, are a family of struggling farmers, forced to move to Hatidze neighborhood due to prior hardships. Under Hatidze’s tutelage, they begin to harvest honey, albeit in much greater quantities than Hatidze ever did. Under the pressures of the market, shown here by honey distributor Safet Javorovac, Hussein is unable to stick to Hatidze’s 50/50 rule, and his hives prove hostile and unsustainable. His cattle also suffer, as they begin to pass on due to sickness and poor living conditions.
Though their differing ideologies do lead to the film’s primary conflict, we never lose sympathy for either side represented. As the film progresses, it becomes slowly clear that these two families and the bees they raise are simply the victims of a society built on unregulated capitalism. Early on in the film, Hatidze travels into town to sell her honey, and the disparity between her living conditions and the city she visits is breathtaking, reminding us that despite how she may appear, she lives in the same world as the rest of us. The world Hatidze lives in has its hardships, but it also has intense moments of beauty.
Towards the end of the second act of the film, Hatidze and Hussein’s son go to harvest honey from one of her caves. As the sun sets, they light a fire within a nearby cave. With the sounds of coyotes piercing the night air, she and the young man talk about everything. The boy asks why Hatidze never left her small house, and the answer Hatidze gives feels less like an excuse or an evasion, but more of a chance to express maternal love to this young man. Though by the end of the film, Hatidze’s lifestyle has been irrevocably changed, it’s an honor to be by her side for the films ninety minute runtime, to be in the presence of such ubiquitous love.