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.
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 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?”.
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.