HoneylandReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/06/20 22:54:21
"Honeyland" is a terrific little documentary that works as both great fly-on-the-wall filmmaking and an easily digested parable about sustainable farming. It almost makes one marvel at the filmmakers' good fortune, because it seems like they started with an idea for a good short and had an even better feature appear, and they shaped it to near-perfection.The short would have been just following Hatidze Muratova, a fifty-something woman who lives in a Macedonian village that seems to be just her and her bedridden mother. She's a beekeeper who uses traditional methods, and does well enough to get by, getting ten to twenty euros per kilo for her artisanal honey in nearby Skopje. The solitude is broken when the nomadic Sam family arrives next door, with dozens of cattle and six noisy children, but she seems to enjoy the company, and when father Hussein decides to start keeping bees himself, she's helpful. Soon, he has committed himself to selling a lot of honey, and it starts to affect Hatidze's work as well.
If the Sams family had never shown up, Honeyland might have been a different but still fascinating movie, one about a dying way of life and how family commitments can tie a person to a place beyond what seems otherwise reasonable. One can see the outline of that movie here, in the opening shots of Hatidze walking across an otherwise empty landscape to check on a hidden hive, the candle-lit scenes of her bickering with mother Nazife in a very small house, and how a camera having to find her in a city scene doesn't seem to dent Hatidze's self-confidence. Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov show Hatidze going about her business in such a way that they don't often need her voice to explain beekeeping to the audience. Her village is presented in a specific, meaningful way - old enough to be made of stone and showing some wear, but nevertheless tidy, in a way. The air is clear, the bees have space enough to work. It is not a lecture about some pastoral ideal, but it presents Hatidze's life in such a way as to get one thinking along those lines, despite the solitude.
When they do show up, they're initially presented as disruptive but not necessarily negative, filling a void in Hatidze's life, with the noise and mess an acceptable trade-off for having something like a family. Like Hatidze herself, the Sams are people one doesn't necessarily see in narrative film too often, migrants who are not particularly threatening or virtuous, just a big family that Kotevska & Stefanov let us know just well enough to see as individual. There are places where their bonds creak a little, and by the time their too-ambitious goals with their own hives starts to fray their relationship with their neighbor, the audience can see more anxiety and frustration than malice.
Instead, it's capitalism that becomes the real danger, in the person of one of Hussein Sam's trading partners; Stefanov & Kotevska show him sparingly, but he comes to represent a relentless pressure to produce more than the land will give. Hatidze's rules are simple enough (take half, leave half), but when one doesn't see the need to think for the long term, or dedicate ample time to learn a craft, the destruction spreads outward, whether it's other bees attacking Hatidze's hives or the cattle being neglected. No lectures are given - Hatidze's protests to her mother sound, on the surface, very much like concerns for herself - but the audience is shown enough to piece things together. Short-term interests taking priority over long-term needs, and pulling up stakes to move on to the next thing when those interests are no longer profitable - causes visible damage at this level, and it's not hard to scale up.That's the sort of self-evident lesson that looks like it just unfolds as the filmmakers point there camera, but it's carefully honed, boiling three years of filming into something that appears to take place over just one summer, carefully selecting the scenes that make the biggest impact but framing that with the right day-in-the-life material, and ultimately making a point of circling back to the opening. It winds up serving a second purpose other than come full circle, even if one of the shots highlights the honeycomb patterns in Hatidze's headscarf (and her identity as a beekeeper). It's impressively and invisibly set up, great documentary filmmaking.
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