Honeyland is a triumph of editing, of cinematography, of will, of perseverance, of humanity.
It’s a genuine shock that this is a documentary film, so gorgeous are the visuals, so well crafted is the narrative. Indeed, it feels more like watching a narrative film than perhaps any other documentary I have ever seen. Admittedly part of it is its foreign conception, giving it the same feel as many films spoken in a foreign language with local, and therefore completely unfamiliar — yet utterly believable — actors. If I had been told this was a regular movie shot in rural Macedonia outside its capital city of Skopje, I would never have doubted it.
Because co-directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov take an utterly cinematic approach to their subjects, particularly the central figure of middle-aged Hatidze, often framing her in stunning panoramic shots as she strolls the Macedonian countryside and hillsides, harvesting honey from strategically placed bee colonies. Occasionally she features in drone shots from above, as in the memorable opening shot of her casually walking around a high cliff, along a trail barely wider than she is.
There are no interviews here, which creates the sense of it being a movie rather than the documentary Honeyland really is. There is plenty of dialogue (in Turkish), a fair amount of it not even subtitled, but no talking heads. No analysis, no conjecture, just what is onscreen speaking for itself. And God knows how much total footage must have been shot, the filmmakers granted stunningly intimate access to Hatidze, her ailing mother, and her heartbreakingly misguided neighbors over the course of three years. It’s all cut down to the 87 minutes that became “the most awarded film out of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.”
It deserves every award and then some. I certainly deserves far more audiences than it will ever get. This is a very small, intimate story with global implications, about the delicate balance between nature and humanity. If this were a conventionally produced motion picture, it would be a parable. But this is real life, illustrating very real consequences as a direct result of ignorance and impatience.
Hatidze, doing nothing more than live a simple life doing simple work and selling her high-quality, raw honey in the city, is the hero of this story. She makes no particular effort to be; she is gentle and kind and generous by nature, and extends those qualities to the poor nomadic family that parks their camper trailer and their 150 cows near her. When the head of this family, Hussein, decides he wants to get into the honey game himself, Hatidze is happy to offer him sensible advice, most notably the sustainable practice of “take half, leave half.”
It would be a mistake to call Hussein a villain, exactly, but his family’s presence certainly poses a threat to Hatidze’s livelihood, and therefore her very life. Tensions brew as Hussein, a very poor father of several children, over-harvests honey from bees that also attack Haditze’s colonies, thereby posing a threat to all of them. The longevity of her amicable relationship with everyone in Hussein’s family comes into question.
Honeyland is presented with a clear vision, of both the broader geopolitical context of these people’s lives, and the details of how they live them. The filmmakers simply observe, without comment or judgment. The little things are the most fascinating, such as the degree to which all these children get used to frequent bee stings, or the frequency with which these people eat dripping honeycomb with their bare hands, in a village with no electricity or things as simple as napkins.
Hatidze does indulge in one pointedly modern invention, dying her hair from a boxed kit purchased the market in Skopje, using her bare hands scraping the mix from a ceramic bowl and using a carefully propped small mirror next to her bedridden, elderly mother. They speak briefly about how Hatidze never married, and how different things could have been for her had she produced any children. This woman is an inspiration, with a remarkably sunny disposition considering her lot in life, with a sort of innate love for it. Rest assured her story here ends with at least a small note of hope, even if it is far more comforting to her personal fate than to her story’s wider implications for the planet.