Review: 'Honeyland'

Thursday, September 5, 2019
A still from 'Honeyland'.

Fight of the Honeybees

2019 / Republic of Macedonia / 90 min. / Dir. by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov / Opened in select cities on July 26, 2019; locally on Aug. 30, 2019

by:
Kayla McCulloch

The reach of the American Dream extends far beyond the boundaries of these 50 states. With the rise of e-commerce and a growing desire for ethically sourced global goods, America’s economic potential can affect even the planet’s smallest, most remote communities. As a result, the financial strategies used by American business owners find their way into such areas. Hatidze Muratova, the subject of Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s debut documentary, Honeyland, might not be selling her honey directly to U.S. consumers, but as the last female beehunter in Europe, it’s more than likely that her carefully cultivated supply makes its way into homes hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away from the single-room residence she shares with her elderly mother. She might not ever see the U.S., but the cutthroat nature of capitalism infiltrates her tiny village as if it were situated in the Rockies rather than the Šar Mountains of Macedonia.

Isolated from the outside world — or so it would initially appear — Hatidze’s daily routine is timeless. She walks up through the mountains to her secluded beehive, then checks in other hives located throughout her evidently abandoned settlement. It’s a graceful and harmonious system: Hatidze moving with precision and skill and the bees allowing her to work within their hives — she doesn’t hurt them, and they don’t hurt her. When the day’s work is done, she returns to care for her ill mother, who is bed-ridden and 85. Humorously, this mother-daughter relationship is more capricious than the one between Hatidze and her bees. It’s a life without modern technology, except for a glitchy radio with an antenna that picks up more static than airwaves and the occasional train ride she takes into town to sell jars of honey. However, it’s an existence with which Hatidze is perfectly comfortable — especially considering she has no real competition. Then the new neighbors arrive.

One fateful morning, a family with an indeterminate number of children arrives in a ramshackle pickup truck with a gutted RV in tow. The young ones run rampant while the mother and father do their best to turn their new house into a home. Through the single window above her mother’s bed, Hatidze watches with uncertainty. It’s a merited response. By day, the family herds cattle and goats; by night, their infant cries until dawn breaks. They have a routine, but it’s one that seems unlikely to coexist in harmony with hers. The neighbors are friendly together, swimming in the river and playing outside in the summer sun, but the tension that lies underneath these everyday distractions is escalating slowly but surely. It all boils over when Hussein, the patriarch, sees how much money Hatidze makes from her jars of honey and decides that he’d also like to take up beekeeping. All Hatidze can do is impart some of her wisdom and hope that he heeds her advice to keep their bees separate to avoid attacks and to make sure to leave half the honey in the hive to avoid colony collapse.

Honeyland’s greatest strength is the amount of time and attention it devotes to its main subject. Witnessing the expertise with which Hatidze cares for her bees is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It’s apparent that what’s transpiring onscreen is a sort of lost art form. In an era where everything is industrialized, streamlined, and digitized for maximum output and efficiency, it’s hard not to appreciate the personalized craft she puts into what she does (even if it takes up most of her waking hours). Everything is done by hand or on foot, and the well-being of the bees is always her top priority. That’s what’s so frustrating to her about Hussein and his family (and, as a result, frustrating to the viewer). His main concern — while noble in its own right— is his household, which means that the needs of the livestock and bees come second to a livable salary. He’s fine with cutting corners if it means a bigger payday for him and his kin. With only two people to care for, Hatidze is perfectly fine wearing the same clothes and eating very small meals if it means that her income can go right back into beekeeping. For Hussein, that money needs to be spent on feeding his children and paying for new clothes and supplies for school — it’s just not practical for him to save money (or put in the work) the way Hatidze does.

Learning that Kotevska and Stefanov spent upward of three years with their subjects makes the mind reel. The film is edited in such a way that the story seems to unfold over the course of a single bee season, starting when the weather is mild and ending during the dead of winter. It’s understandable why the filmmakers might have done this, even if it may or may not be manipulative — it establishes another potent analogy, this time for Hatidze specifically. Although the arrival of Hussein and his family unquestionably has an impact on her life, some other life-altering event would have occurred regardless of whether or not a rival beekeeper appeared next door. There’s a reason the notion of life moving through phases much like seasons has persisted in the arts for so long. Hatidze enjoyed good times and bad times before the events of Honeyland, and she surely will continue to experience both the positive and the negative going forward.

Kotevska and Stefanov’s documentary never resorts to talking heads or intertitles to help contextualize what’s going on — the camera is a fly (or bee) on the wall, allowing the interactions between the two beekeepers to speak for themselves. By taking this naturalistic approach, the co-directors craft a pithy analogy for the 21st century’s global economy. Hussein is McDonald’s, while Hatidze is a mom-and-pop diner. There’s a fundamental difference in the way the two operate, and the drama that transpires from this variance is the driving force of the piece. As a result, it’s hard not to get caught up in the tragedy of it all. (It’s absolutely a tragedy, by the way — suffering, distress, and destruction invade the lives of these two families with such force that it almost seems unreal.) Honeyland deserves praise for capturing something so bitter transpiring over something so sweet.

Rating: B+