REVIEW: Honeyland [2019]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 90 minutes
    Release Date: August 29th, 2019 (Macedonia)
    Studio: Neon
    Director(s): Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov

Now we’ll leave them half.

Shot over three years about 20 km from the city directors Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska call home (Skopje), Honeyland looks at the delicate balance tenuously held between nature and mankind. The duo take us into an abandoned farming village to do so—a place where Hatidze Muratova continues to live as the last in a long line of Macedonian wild beekeepers. It’s a simple life ruled by her devotion to an eighty-five year old blind and bedridden mother (Nazife Muratova) and the tiny insects that sustain her as friends, nourishment, and wealth. She calmly removes the stones covering her hives with bare hands, her singing and smoke pump maintaining a fearlessness against their stingers. Because half the honey is hers and half theirs, no one goes hungry.

Hatidze’s existence is intriguing enough as this lone woman walking four hours to sell her honey in Skopje and four hours to return home and feed her mother. The routine is almost spiritual as she communes with the bees like family interwoven in an ancient, symbiotic ecosystem. And her kind nature and good humor (when not yelling at Nazife to stretch her legs) make it so we believe she can survive any curveballs that come her way—a belief that’s soon tested when a nomadic family (Hussein and Ljutvie Sam) with seven children parks its RV on the stone plot next door with a cattle herd they hope to farm on land long bald of grass. If Stefanov and Kotevska hoped for conflict beyond weather, it had arrived.

What follows is yet another example of how I could never be a documentarian standing as a fly-on-the-wall in silence. While the Sams’ appearance hurts nobody at first, Hussein eventually sees Hatidze’s bees and wonders about the profit margin possibilities. Suddenly he decides to be a honey farmer too, buying crates to do what she does in the stones. Does she confront him about it? No. Hatidze actually provides assistance instead. She explains how long it takes, how much honey each crate can be assumed to make, and why you must never harvest early or deplete the stores within. As long as Hussein follows the rules she’s lived by for decades, there won’t be a problem. If he doesn’t, however, his hungry bees will kill hers for food.

As soon as Hussein’s buyer demands more honey than he’s been promised, we know things are about to take a major turn for the worst. What is to be done, though? Despite capturing on-camera what Hussein does to become the direct cause of the effect Hatidze must endure, the filmmakers are helpless to do anything but document with impartiality. I wanted to scream at the screen when Hussein and his wife deny their part in what happens by making excuses. The callousness with which they operate and teach their kids to adopt themselves is unconscionable. One of their sons (I believe it’s Mustafa) understands all too well who his parents are and lets them know it often. But he’s a kid. What can he do to stop them?

We’re therefore watching as capitalist greed enters this sanctuary only to destroy it completely before moving on as though nothing had happened. It’s not some corporation, though. Rather than business suits from the big city coming to steal land, it’s a single family that thinks of its children as resources to combat the poverty their existence also becomes an excuse for creating. Selfishness isn’t relegated solely to the rich when the desperation of those forced to live in the rich’s world also needs it to survive. That’s the difference between Hatidze and Hussein. They’re both poor and stuck by their circumstances, but she isn’t desperate. She actually lives a simple life that her bees can preserve if external forces don’t risk what she’s built without remorse.

That last part is what makes Honeyland so unforgettable. Hatidze as a character is phenomenally inspiring and the cinematography of her against a quiet village all to herself is breathtaking, but the depths to which Hussein and Ljutvie go to take and take and take isn’t something you can let happen without conjuring pure rage. And this is just one tiny part of our planet. One family’s greed can kill everything in its sphere of influence without ever looking inward to acknowledge blame. One family can decimate a way of life that had endured for centuries and could continue even longer through those with genuine respect for the environment that provides them everything they could ever need on faith. There’s no clearer evidence of humanity’s impact on nature.

Stefanov and Kotevska know what they’re doing by introducing Macedonia’s rural beauty and its fiercely iconic steward first. By appreciating what Hatidze does and understanding the precise balance keeping everything harmonious, we’re able to see the Sam family as the antagonists—tragically or not—they are. Don’t get me wrong. They have their backs against the wall and are themselves a casualty of our pervasive wealth disparity, but that doesn’t excuse their actions. And seeing Mustafa stand-up to them only proves how an alternative path forward exists by looking beyond ourselves to accept the individual impact we each have on mankind as a whole. Hatidze is therefore positioned to decide our future. It’s her capacity to maintain hope or succumb to defeat that reveals whether we can still be saved.

[1 & 3] Courtesy of Neon
[2] By Ljubo Stefanov

One Thought to “REVIEW: Honeyland [2019]”

  1. Mary Most

    Well written review, helped articulate and clarify the background and issues we discussed after watching this film.

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