Review: ‘Honeyland’

Hot Docs 2019

6 mins read

(Macedonia, 85 min.)
Dir. Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska
Programme: Animal Magnetism (Canadian Premiere)

I don’t know how much competition there is, but I’m willing to wager decent money that Honeyland is the best Macedonian beekeeping documentary ever made. It’s a film of beautiful intimacy and tragedy, a rare glimpse at a dying way of life, and an observation of culture at a crossroads filled with heartache and humour. This excellent film, a Sundance triple award winner with the Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema), cinematography award, and a special prize for “impact and change” on its mantle, sees in one woman’s struggle to preserve her way of life the greater mass of tensions and contradictions sweeping across Europe in a time of significant mobility and change.

“Take half for you and leave half for them,” is the sage advice by which Hatidze Muratoya, the film’s central subject, abides. She’s the queen bee of a dying breed as she survives in isolation while making honey from wild bees. Hatidze lives with her ailing mother, Nazife, along with two cats and a dog, in a ramshackle home without running water or electricity. She trudges to markets four hours away to sell her honey by the jar, earning a modest income from a demanding lifestyle. Hatidze has her bees to keep her company, though, and she stays contentedly busy buzzing around the hives and sharing the honey with the insects in equal measure. There’s such a strong relationship between the woman and her bees that she can slip her bare hands into the hive and extract a honeycomb without landing a single sting.

However, the rule of the land means that all may share its natural resources. Hatidze’s peaceful countryside is interrupted by the arrival of a nomadic family that sets up shop with its herds of unruly cattle and noisy children. Directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska observe the limits of control and the elasticity of tolerance as Hatidze at first welcomes the noise and intrusion even though the cows keep trampling her property and the kids keep pestering her mother and cats. Hatidze, who never married nor had children, takes a special interest in the family’s younger son. She shows him how to tend the bees and respect their natural process. Particularly important is her mantra of “half for them, half for you,” which the boy takes to heart.

The boy’s father, Hussein, sees an opportunity in Hatidze’s kindness and success. He hones in on her territory and sets up shop with his own apiary. Ever the good neighbour, Hatidze offers the same lessons she gives his son as she watches the unruly patriarch berate his bee-stung wife and kids like a tyrant. Hussein doesn’t heed Hatidze’s advice and takes more than his fair share of the honey, which has devastating consequences for the natural order of things and especially Hatidze’s finely-calibrated artisanal business.

Honeyland offers a remarkable likeness to Norman McLaren’s groundbreaking experimental work Neighbours with its humorous play on politics, niceties, and warfare. The obliging Hatidze is the Canada to Hussein’s unruly, mansplaining USA, and the doc captures an escalating feud as battle lines are drawn and one neighbour consumes with a voraciously insatiable appetite, while the other works to create peace to preserve the land she respects and understands. One family is there to stay; the other is there to simply harvest.

Lensed beautifully by cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma, Honeyland harnesses the golden sunlight that bathes the countryside to evoke the natural order that Hatidze respects and Hussein disrupts. The film also empowers its protagonist through the agency of the camera as it captures Hatidze strolling powerfully through the region, protecting the land as its keeper and caregiver. The directors bookend the film with an awesome scene of Hatidze scaling a ragged cliff to access a hive tucked away from Hussein’s path of destruction. The honey assumes a different hue as Hatidze and her dog relish its golden sweetness. The film shows the resilience of its heroine as she tastes the honey that will live to see another day thanks to her ever-present care.

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Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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