Honeyland: The Sweet Life, by David Bax
If Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s Honeyland were a horror movie like The Deadly Bees or The Swarm, the constant buzzing would be a menacing, threatening choice of sound design. As it’s not a horror movie but rather a stunning, compassionate, intimate, patient documentary about honey farming in remote Macedonia, the sound instead takes on an organic warmth. But the risk of the sting remains, of course. Honeyland takes us on a long journey, in both distance and time, to a way of life that may be fading from the planet but feels all the more alive for its proximity to oblivion.
Kotevska and Stefanov’s main subject is Hatidze Muratova, an old woman who lives with her even older mother, the delightfully kind and funny Nazife Muratova, in a tiny stone house. Hatidze makes her living by keeping bees, not in the familiar boxes but, according to traditional methods, behind rocks and on cliffsides and in other places where hives naturally occur. She harvests the honey and sells it at market in town. Shortly into Honeyland‘s runtime, though, a family moves onto the plot of land next door. They raise cows as well as bees; theirs are in boxes. What starts out as a neighborly and friendly relationship eventually turns to animosity as the new family, the Sams, adhere to more modern, faster, greedier, less sustainable methods that put everyone’s bees at risk.
Capable of producing both delicious honey and painful stings, bees represent a blend of sweetness and danger, a pretty apt metaphor for the lives depicted in Honyeland. The sweetness part comes in the form of family, like with Hatidze and her mother, and community, like when Hatidze starts teaching one of the Sams’ many children how to care for bees. It’s also sometimes literal sweetness; each shot of someone taking a big bite out of the freshest possible honeycomb could be its own commercial for the honey industry. The danger similarly comes in many forms, from the minor but heartbreaking, as when we see the Sams’ pre-verbal toddler get stung on the neck, to the entrancingly terrifying moment when Hatidze has to venture out from her home with a torch in the middle of the night to chase off wolves.
Of course, it isn’t all sugar and life-threatening encounters with predators. Honeyland also uses its ready-made allegories to showcase the different kinds of sustenance we require. Some we get from the land and some we get from one another.
As a portrait of familial love, Honeyland is unrivaled. The scenes of Hatidze and Nazife talking with (or, just as often, yelling at) one another are moving in their undiluted humanity. They’re also often hilarious; Hatidze, assuring her mother she had a good trip into town: “Even had a watermelon!”
All of our lives include some mix of joy, abandon, cruelty, danger and all manner of other things. Out here in the Macedonian countryside, the dearth of distractions simply make it all more potent and noticeable and, like the buzzing bees themselves, impossible to control. Honeyland, like the best documentaries, doesn’t even try to do so. Instead, like Hatidze and her bees on the side of a cliff, it aims only for harmony and balance.