Honeyland – A documentary that explores the bitter-sweet dilemmas of bee-ing human

Rarely does a documentary capture a story and its settings in such breathtaking detail. From the sweeping, stark Balkan landscape to the palpable buzz of a bee trying to cling to a floating leaf, Honeyland is as much a visual treat, as it is a narrative masterpiece. Set in a remote Macedonian village, the documentary revolves around the life of Hatidže Muratova, one of the last remaining keepers of wild bees in the remote mountain village of Bekirlija. Much like a solitary bee herself, it would seem as if she is following some invisible trail across the steep, rocky slopes in her mustard blouse and printed black skirt. Her callused fingers gently pry open a slab of rock that nestles several bee combs in its cavity. What follows is a practice enmeshed in ecological wisdom, “Half for you, half for me…” murmurs Hatidže, gently smoking the hives with burnt dry dung. The simplicity and profundity of this statement lingers throughout the film, as are the repercussions of the actions by her neighbours, who fail to value this advice.

Hatidže walking across hilly ridges to reach the beehives

In a testament to the patience and integrity required to create anything of value, directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov spent over three years filming Hatidže’s activities, as well those of her nomadic, cattle-rearing neighbours who camped next to her home for a while. Hussein’s family of seven boisterous children and his wife are a sharp contrast to Hatidže’s quiet life spent in tending to the bees, and her ailing, paralytic mother. The directors commitment towards portraying their lives in as authentic a manner as possible led them to document every aspect of these complex relationships. What is even more interesting is that both directors don’t speak the local language, Turkish, and had no translators working with them while shooting. They instead relied on careful observation of the gestures and body language to shoot scenes they felt were important. What emerges therefore are the detailed particularities of individual existence that are instantly recognised as more universal expressions of the human condition. For instance, intimate moments between Hatidže’s and her mother can be easily recognised, despite Hatidže’s rough countenance and interactions. The sparse dialogues in between invite further reflection, as when her mother wryly remarks of her condition, “I have become a tree…”.

Hatidže’s mother declining her daughter’s offer to take her outside

Hatidže’s life is ruptured with the arrival of her neighbours, though she welcomes the company at first. She is especially warm towards the children and willingly helps Hussein set up some bee boxes because he is looking for ways to increase his income. However, things soon go south when he fails to adhere to her dictum of “leave half for them (the bees)”. Kotevska and Stefanov resist the temptation of taking sides, or reducing the complexity of choices involved, as Hussein is seen struggling to provide for the family. He gives in to the pressure of a dealer, despite his initial reluctance due to the promise of a steady income if he is able to harvest the entire honey in one go. The actions prove fatal for his bee colony, for they are unable to survive the loss, and also end up killing most of Hatidže’s bees in order to get honey from the hive. Hatidže’s loss and frustration isn’t so much expressed in words, as they are shown in her eyes and in the long walks away from home to find another suitable home for her remaining bees. Pushed into further desperation after the collapse of the bee colony, Hussein ends up burning trees nearby to grow fodder and grass for his cattle. Hatidže’s glowers at the fury of the flames when she asks him, “Where will the bees go?”.

Hatidže instructing Hussein on how to take care of the beehives
A dealer pressurising Hussein to collect all the hives together
Hatidže rebuking Hussein for burning the Juniper trees

Hussein’s son is sees the wisdom of her words, in part because of the oppressive working conditions at times. He lashes out at his father, and joins Hatidže’s on her day-long journey to the secluded mountain side to get some wild honey. Throughout, the directors remain faithful to the landscape and the subjects. The frigid winters, the pain of losing cattle to some illness, mourning the death of a mother; their unflinching gaze holds a mirror to our collective psyche and shows the deep fissures of ecological loss meeting the fragile veneer of a civilised society. There is no closure in the documentary, as there is none in life. There is only the search for meaning. If one is lucky, the bees might show the way.

Hatidže and Hussein’s son walk through the hills after collecting some wild honey





Published by debbiebornfree

I am cynical, yet hopeful. I am scared, yet take a step into the dark. I am an introvert, yet I can fill the room with conversations. I listen to stories, as I write my own. I am human.

6 thoughts on “Honeyland – A documentary that explores the bitter-sweet dilemmas of bee-ing human

  1. Where do I get to watch this?
    Another beautiful read. In my mind, it all blends into one beautiful world- nature, culture, Miyazaki’s animes, this documentary, your writings. Different creations with one soul. Themes revolving around one common story that connects all of us- our relationship with the environment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Vidya. I don’t think it is streaming in any of the regular platforms. Let me see if I can share through some file-sharing software. Yes, most of my reflections are centred on the human-nature relationship, and what it means for us.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I watched the trailer on YouTube and I would love to watch the whole movie. In case you are able to find any link, do let me know. Thank you and may your tribe increase. May I ask you what your name is ? Please feel free to write to me at vchathoth@gmail.com. 🙂


      2. Debbie, thank you for sharing the link. I watched the documentary last night. It makes me very happy that these days, I am filling my mind with richness that cannot be bought with money. I am overwhelmed by life- by the life in all of us. Hatidze is now a part of me. As I watched certain parts of the documentary, I imagined the movie makers capturing her suffering. I wanted to know if they felt they must help. I wasn’t sure if a film maker helps or if he is bound to capture everything as an observer, without getting personally attached to the character of his film and interfering with the natural course of her life. I was very relieved to read that they did offer her mother medical help. Also, Hatidze was rescued from her poverty following the filming. She now lives in a village where she has a social connect and a respite from the harsh winters. However, at other times, she continues with her craft. I love this outcome to her life.


      3. I am glad you enjoyed the film, Vidya. Yes, it is increasingly difficult to find meaning and hope amidst the cacophony and violence engulfing every medium of thought and expression. Such gems remind us that we need very little to be happy, once we are aware of the abundance that surrounds us through the food, water and air we breathe.
        Your comment regarding the filmmakers’ decision to help the subjects or not is an interesting one, because in one of the interviews they comment on how they had to decide whether to be a filmmaker or a human. They saw their commitment to the film and its subjects through as unobtrusive a portrayal of their life as possible. Without a deep understanding of the context, even good intentions can end up having only superficial effects, or at its worst exacerbate a situation. In part, simply trying to provide an in-depth perspective of an issue also signals the humility of accepting that ‘bearing witness’ is at times the best one can offer. I came across some interesting critiques of why need to believe a bit less in our agency and sense of control over things (even if for a good cause), and acknowledge our limitations in being able to comprehend the vast complexity and forces at play. Of course, easier said than done. Such arguments can also be easily misappropriated as an excuse for apathy and inaction. Still, it is worth a thought because it complicates the otherwise simplistic narrative of ‘help’, especially when the power dynamics are skewed.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Your comment is very insightful. With our current ways of life, we have lost sensitivity (and access) to the natural abundance that surrounds us. The urge to ‘help’- it sounds like the most natural thing to do. But I see the wisdom in your words. There is such an intricate relationship between every human being and their environment that in our intentional acts of ‘help’, we may perhaps be disrupting this intricacy, this natural scheme of things. I studied Medicine and I specialized in Physiology. The first thing we learn in physiology is that life is an automaton. I was awed by how every cell, every system in the body could function of its own accord, sustaining itself without conscious effort on the part of the organism. What was also emphasized to us was the delicate harmony between the cells, between the systems. We defined disease as the loss of this harmony. I see this automaton within me, around me. And I am truly awed and inspired. That we may even write words of beauty, is not our conscious effort. It is all an automaton. So yes, I strongly believe that the conscious must not lead; it must lend itself to the unconscious. For the unconscious knows.

    Liked by 1 person

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