Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s documentary Honeyland opens with the image of a yellow-frocked figure, indistinct, walking a notched path that winds through a green sea of grass. It’s an aerial shot, and it basks in a vision of spring-colored tranquility. But this is almost immediately upset with a cut to a closer, tracking shot, one that follows just paces behind the woman who is the main focus of Honeyland — Hatidze Muratova — as she clambers along the cliffed façade of a precarious mountain path. Hatidze’s destination proves to be a strategically frequented one: a selected bit of hollowed-out rock, inside of which are precious bits of honeycomb. The film then settles into the hardscrabble rhythms of this North Macedonian beekeeper’s daily routines, which mostly consist of caring for her bedridden, octogenarian mother and maintaining her artful science of bee care and honey collection. Hatidze seems to occupy a netherworld between epochs: she lives in an antiquated, lantern-lit stone home and is frequently shot in close-up, her weathered and sun-browned face and wide smile, set atop a grey-whiskered chin, speaking to a certain noble obsolescence. But she also routinely travels to a nearby city, where she hawks her honey and uses the proceeds to purchase extravagances like chestnut-colored hair dye because “everyone likes to look good.”
Honeyland’s main turmoil comes from the introduction of a nomadic family, who settle near Hatidze’s home. At first, everyone exists in harmonious conviviality, with navy skies and nighttime fires backgrounding the early stages of their relationship. The newcomers — two parents and their numerous children — seem industrious; the youngsters help to birth and wrangle calves, amongst other trying work. But when the father of this family, Hussein, decides to diversify and get into the bee business, with the help of his kindly neighbor — Hatidze — a tension between tradition and modernity suddenly erupts. It’s here that the bees in Honeyland, in addition to serving their practical purpose, are also shown to function as something of a metaphor: bees have long been a symbol of environmental health and stability, so when Hussein ignores Hatidze’s experiential wisdom about beekeeping, this upsets the ecological balance and facilitates a fatal antagonism between the neighboring apian habitats, while also representing money culture’s short-sighted disregard for the necessity of nature’s balance and the imminent, gyroscopic consequences therein. Hussein’s actions emphasize his inability to extricate himself from, or situate himself within, present capitalist ideology, his need for productivity and profit organically turning him into a villain who threatens his children (he professes to have a new one each year, implicitly for the workforce gain) with decapitation for indolence, and whose actions result in the avoidable deaths of dozens of calves who exist only as commodity. Conflict gives way to loss and forceful resignation, and the large family absents themselves in pursuit of greener pastures. And in Honeyland‘s penultimate shot, those vibrant colors which ushered Hatidze into the film here give way to the fading day’s palette of azure, coral, and mauve, against which, silhouetted, is the image of a woman feeding honeycomb to her dog. In these moments, for the moment, joy and hope still exist.
Published as part of July 2019’s Before We Vanish.