Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov | North Macedonia | 2019

2019 Sundance, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Moscow, Seattle, Krakow, DocEdgeNZ, Sydney, Shanghai, Melbourne, Toronto, Sarajevo, Athens, Cologne, Mumbai, Minsk

Nestled in an isolated region deep within the Balkans, Hatidze Muratova lives with her ailing mother in a village without roads, electricity, or running water. She’s the last in a long line of Macedonian beekeepers, eking out a living farming honey in small batches to be sold in the closest city. When an itinerant family arrives, Hatidze’s peaceful existence faces upheaval. Though she optimistically offers the family her beepkeeping advice, the family’s patriarch soon casts Hatidze’s advice aside in his hunt for profit – causing a breach in the natural order and threatening Hatidze’s means of survival. The debut feature from documentarians Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, Honeyland is a portrait of the delicate balance between humankind and nature, a glimpse at a fast disappearing way of life, and a testament to one extraordinary woman’s resilience.
– Toronto International Film Festival.

An extraordinary documentary both in terms of subject and craft, Honeyland is a powerful, moving exploration of the delicate balance of tradition and modernity in the most rural of locations. From the jaw-dropping opening sequence, in which a middle-aged woman clambers through the imposing terrain to locate a beehive on a craggy overhang and extract its honey, first-time directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov demonstrate such innate dramatic and cinematic sensibilities, such an eye for evocative detail, that at times their film could almost seem like expertly crafted fiction. Yet this tale of a female beekeeper in rural Macedonia is deeply, earthily authentic, a portrait of an ancient way of life that’s baked into the soil but proves to be as fragile as a bee’s wing.

Fiftysomething Hatidze Muratova scrapes out a living amid the rolling mountains as a wild beekeeper, Europe’s last remaining one, according to the films promotional material. When she isn’t caring for her ailing 85-year-old mother Nazife, Hatidze spends her days scouting for and carefully maintaining hives. Ensuring that she leaves enough honey for the bees to prosper, she sells her wares at the city market. While her existence maybe cloistered to the point of claustrophobia, Hatidze is nevertheless charming, engaging and sharp-witted, shooting over three years, the filmmakers have clearly earned the trust they need for their subject to entirely let down her guard.

By taking a purely observational stance, with no talking heads or contextual information, Honeyland so thrusts the viewer into its little-seen world that it allows us to feel – rather than simply observe – the intricate ebb and flow of life in this beautiful, challenging wilderness. The harmony in which Hatidze lives with her natural surroundings is emphasised by some truly glorious cinematography from Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma, which basks in the expansive golden hues of the landscape before lingering on Hatidze’s weatherworn face in the candlelight of her home.

Moments within this one-room dwelling are particularly poignant, as Hatidze and Nazife engage in affectionate cross-generational sparring. “I’m not dying,” rasps Nazife, although she clearly is, “I’m just trying to make your life miserable.” During brief conversations they have about the fact that Hatidze has never married – mainly due to her late father turning away all the village matchmakers – the prospect of what might have been is the merest flicker on Hatidze’s genial expression. Yet her lifestyle, it becomes clear, is fuelled more by duty than choice.

The genuine intimacy brokered between film and viewer means that it’s something of a shock when a large family of nomadic Turks suddenly roar into view and pitch up next door, bringing with them hordes of children and cattle. Initially meaning to work the land, patriarch Hussein soon realises the monetary potential of beekeeping and sets up his own hives. He has none of Hatidze’s knowledge or patience, and his slapdash approach to making honey — quantity and profit above all else — soon decimates his hives and sends his bees on a rampage through Hatidze’s own colony. Images of Hussein and his kids running screaming from the stings of their own insects are an effective contrast to those of Hatidze calmly working in clouds of bees.

As tensions build between the neighbours, the filmmakers are careful to show that Hussein is no villain, but simply a desperate man doing all he can to care for his family with minimal resources. His determination to have yet more children because they are believed to be a man’s greatest treasure also speaks to the fact that his life is dictated by tradition just as much as Hatidze’s.

And when, finally, Hussein and his clan admit defeat and hightail it away in a dusty cacophony, and Hatidze can return to the life of solitude she has always known, Honeyland ends not on a sense of relief but of dignified resignation. As the last of her kind, there’s simply nowhere else she could be.
– Nikki Baughan, Sight and Sound, October 2019.

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