In the opening scenes of “Honeyland” — the new documentary by Tamera Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov — Hatidze Muratova, a Turkish immigrant in her 60s, inches along a precipitous mountain ledge in a remote region of Macedonia. In a nimble sequence, Hatidze pauses on a cliff to remove golden sheets of honeycomb from a rocky outcrop. “Take half, leave half” is her mantra, and she slices through the gooey find with reverential agility, appeasing, somehow, the frenzy of bees while the Balkan landscape looms placidly in the background. At this point, the camera appears merely observational but — as fate, or, superb editing would have it — the film comes to possess a slingshot-like narrative convenience and it’s not long before the lens noses itself to conflict, around which — in four hundred hours of footage whittled to an eighty-seven-minute film — the plot centers.
Upon returning to the ground, the audience is acquainted with the colony of bees Hatidze maintains near her home, and whose honey she harvests to sell in Skopje, a city reachable only by bus. In what seems an intensely hermetic life, the bees gift Hatidze with mobility: they grant her permission to leave, and a home to which she can return. Within this journey there also exists temporary relief from her ailing, 85-year-old mother for whom she cares and provides daily.
When neighbors — Hussein Sam, his wife, seven children and a herd of cattle — move to a nearby lot, Hatidze brightens. She takes particular interest in the children, later expressing regret to her mother at never having had any of her own. “What will I do,” she cries, “when you die?” It’s the first time the hard exterior of Hatidze softens, and the scene draws forth a viewer’s sympathy, changing a passive audience to a loyal one. Meanwhile, her ties with the family tighten and Hatidze helps Hussein set up his own bee colonies after he takes an interest in the supplemental income. If there is any reticence on Hatidze’s part, it is only gleaned through her cautionary “take half, leave half” counsel, which is often followed by the camera’s pan to a swarm of bees ringing like an anthropomorphized warning.
One may not be terribly taxed to infer what comes next. Hussein does not follow Hatidze’s advice, partly due to pressure from their buyer to over-produce, but also because of his own reluctance to “leave half,” a testament to their economic strain and a benighted presumption of what, in reality, is a rigorous and demanding livelihood. The audience, too, may have been falsely lulled by the sublime landscape, the big airy moments, and then, the more concentrated ones; we, after all, can conceive of Hatidze’s beekeeping in terms of aesthetic rather than necessity, an adjacent privilege of the documentary go-er, and a position that makes it possible to view Hatidze’s harvesting as an eye-pleasing cash-in rather than a requisite for survival. In any case, Hussein over-harvests, and his starving bees kill Hatidze’s bees.
It’s a blow to Hatidze’s economic security, yes, but just as acute is the personal loss. As anyone will note, Hatidze’s relationship with the bees is an uninhibited companionship — a symbiotic tenderness that is undeniably prevailing; where she lives alongside the physical landscape, Hussein lives in response to it. Hatidze, for example, is not stung once while the neighbors constantly fight off attacks. Indeed, it is a successful rendering of what appears to be the filmmakers overarching, perhaps twofold appeal: to be a successful steward of the land, one must be exceptional, both in the parameters placed on the self and the courage to stand against greed, regardless of the state from which it stems.
The film is inconclusive, though, given its narrative muscle, is made all the more powerful by it and sidesteps what could have been (excuse the pun) a treacly end.The audience leaves Hatidze in much the same place we found her: traversing a landscape alone. But there’s a scene before this where Hatidze wrestles with a radio, twisting a knob in an attempt to break through chronic static, searching for a voice that is, perhaps, equally intent on being heard. For here, as elsewhere, there’s a desire for connection, as well as a hope — a supreme need — to coexist.
Watch the trailer here: