One of the most wrenching and beautiful moments in a narrative film last year was the image of a few buzzing bees in the palm of a teen girl’s hand, a joyful offering from a blossoming daughter to her troubled father, in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace. That off-the-grid American indie and Honeyland, the exceptional debut doc from directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, share more than a bit of spiritual connective tissue, with their themes of isolation, filial duty and immersion in the natural world. Set in a desolate corner of the Balkan Peninsula, Honeyland is an unforgettable vérité character study and an intimate look at an endangered tradition. That tradition is wild beekeeping, or bee hunting, and the film’s central character is said to be the only woman in Europe still carrying on the practice in the old-school way — which is to say, in harmony with the insects.
Shot over a three-year period — and sure to attract fans of direct cinema as it continues its travels — the film began as a commissioned video for an environmental project and found its heart in Hatidze Muratova, whose trust in the directors is evident in the remarkable access she’s granted them. That’s particularly so in the doc’s scenes inside the tiny tumbledown house she shares with her ancient, half-blind mother, Nazife, and their dog and cat. The chronicle that Stefanov and Kotevska have distilled abounds in moments of unguarded discovery — moments that can be tender, humorous, rackety or serene. Along with its poignant depiction of a disappearing way of life, it offers a bracing reminder that thoughtless neighbors are a hazard everywhere, even in a remote rural village. And, as a footnote, it reveals that apparently a cover version of “You Are So Beautiful” is in heavy rotation on Macedonian radio.
The radio that this pop standard is heard on is a portable model; there’s no electricity in the abandoned scrap of the Macedonian countryside, once settled by Turks, where Hatidze (born in 1964) and her mother are the only remaining residents. In their often shouted mother-daughter give-and-take, there’s a bit of a gentle, Old World spin on Grey Gardens about them. The older woman, who has the air of a genial child, albeit one with an awareness of mortality and strikingly long, tapered hands, has been bedbound for four years: “I have become a tree,” is how she puts it, in typically poetic fashion. Later, in the depths of winter, she’ll ask, “Is there spring?”
Hatidze, with her Margaret Hamilton profile and ever-present headscarf, is busy with the stuff of life, keeping herself and Nazife fed and sheltered by harvesting and selling honey. She makes regular trips (by foot and bus) into the capital, Skopje, to sell jars of her honey to shop owners, touting its purity and curative powers. When the honey business is completed, she buys hair dye for herself, with very particular ideas about the right shade, and chooses a fan for her mother.
The extraordinary opening sequence follows her along the edge of an outcrop to one of the hives that she nurtures. With practiced care, she removes a slab of stone to check on the swarm within, the honeycomb and the golden ooze. It’s work as ritual. She chants her encouragement to the bees. Things are as they should be.
Cue the caravan of new neighbors: a raucous clan of itinerant herders consisting of a couple and their seven kids, arriving with their cattle and much clamor. Hatidze initially regards them with warm curiosity. She plays with the kids, and when the father, Hussein Sam, becomes interested in starting his own honey business, she offers guidance and advice. But her mantra of “take half, leave half” makes no impression; he’s interested in immediate returns, not the long view or natural rhythms. His family’s venture is noisy with stinging bees and swearing kids. Instead of a melodious chant, it has a mechanical clang. Eventually it will inspire a memorable curse from Hatidze’s usually temperate mother: “May God burn their livers.”
Though their struggles to make ends meet are evident, it’s hard not to view the Sams as the small-scale equivalent of a multinational corporation taking over a nature sanctuary. In this age of extinction crises and threatened habitats and heedless profiteering, not to mention the Trump administration’s Department of the Interior, Honeyland tells a story with universal resonance, even while uncloaking a forgotten place so specific and strange that most contemporary Westerners could never imagine it.
The agile camerawork of Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma is attuned to the essence of that place, with its rocky terrain, its ruins and its lone walker, Hatidze. In the deep shadows and golden candlelight inside the women’s hut, helmers Stefanov and Kotevska capture the beekeeper contemplating a future alone, without her mother, and trying to figure out how her life turned out as it has. As with any vérité portrait, many things go unexplained. But the images tell us what we need to know: There’s the unforced choreography between Hatidze and the bees. There’s her look of recognition as she studies the clambering efforts of a turtle to escape a shallow stone trough. And, in a heart-stopping moment, there’s the stricken look of compassion on a boy’s face after she answers his not-so-simple question: Why don’t you leave this place?
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production company: Trice Films
Directors: Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska
Producers: Atanas Georgiev, Ljubo Stefanov
Directors of photography: Fejmi Daut, Samir Ljuma
Editor: Atanas Georgiev
Music: Foltin (Branislav Nikolov, Goce Jovanovski, Pece Trajkovski)