Hatidze lives alone with her bed-ridden mother among the ruins of an old village in a remote part of Northern Macedonia. We watch her climb high into the rocky hills, maneuvering along the edges to a section seemingly carved out of the cliffside. She chisels away at the rock face with a quiet confidence soon uncovering what she came for – bright yellow honeycomb dripping with their golden nectar. Hatidze goes to work, careful not to harm a single bee and only taking a portion of their labors. And the bees don’t bother her either. It’s a perfect synergy between man and nature.
“Honeyland” from directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov is a documentary that both celebrates that synergy and explores what can happen when it is disrupted. With over four hundred hours of footage condensed to an 87 minute film, you can’t help but wonder if we’re getting the full picture. But what the filmmakers do give us is an invigorating slice of humanity fraught with identifiable feelings that transcend location, culture or status.
Hatidze is the film’s focus and there’s more to her than the dying art of wild beekeeping. She’s a very capable woman, adept at sustaining a home for her and her mother despite no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water. Early on she ventures into the capitol city of Skopje to sell the honey she has collected. Hatidze is a surprisingly shrewd businesswoman and you get the sense she enjoys bartering with the local street merchants. She takes the money she earns to buy the barest of necessities along with the occasional splurge (this trip it’s a hair coloring kit).
Her quiet, structured ecosystem is rattled when a vagabond couple shows up in a raggedy flatbed truck pulling a camper full of chickens and children. Close behind them is their 150 head of cattle. This noisy cluster of chaos plants down in the ruins with Hatidze. She tries to be a good neighbor, even taking a liking to a precocious middle child. But when the father learns there is money to be made selling honey, he gets some bees of his own. Eventually his greed and his family’s growing dysfunction upends any chance of a peaceful ‘neighborhood’.
Cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma take a very fly-on-the-wall approach, always in observation mode even in instances when you wish they would intervene. Practically all of these instances involve the rambunctious children and their inattentive parents. But Daut and Ljuma’s spectator perspective also allows for the capturing of organic, heartfelt moments. Take Hatidze soulfully pondering what her life would be like if she had married, had a son, and lived elsewhere. Or her brief but pained expression after finding her newly discovered beehive had been pillaged by the father.
The movie pulls up just short of branding the intruding family as the villains. In many ways you can sense their desperation and they are ultimately just trying to survive. But unquestionably our sympathies lie with Hatidze who watches as her once harmonious way of life is turned on its head. Metaphorically, the loud and unruly invaders could represent a host of things. But it’s the shattered relationship between a lonely beekeeper and nature itself that provides the more potent and personal sting.
VERDICT – 4 STARS