REVIEW: Honeyland

REVIEW: Honeyland

Honeyland — observational documentary, 85 minutes

Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska

Review written by Alison Marek

The gorgeous, epic, quietly suspenseful “Honeyland” opens with dizzingly beautiful shots of open fields and untamed wilderness in the mountains of Macedonia. We follow a solitary figure — a middle aged woman named Hatidze — as she climbs the rocks and moves cautiously at the edge of a large precipice to reach her goal: A hole in the cliff that she’s covered with a rock. 

She pries aside the cover and reveals her quarry: A colony of bees that swarms with activity, flying out and around the intruder as she gently pulls their honey-soaked combs from the miniature cave. Hatidze wears a helmet fitted with  transparent netting, but no other protective clothing or even gloves. With care, precision, and confidence she gently moves and smokes the bees aside so she can collect their honey. 

Before she heads back down the mountain, she pours a puddle of honey on the rocks for the bees: “Half for me, half for you,” she tells them (and, of course, us). This transaction guarantees that the bees have enough to eat during the winter months. Feeding the bees also stops them from attacking neighbor hives, killing their colonies and stealing their honey.

Soon, Hatidze’s back home, loaded with honey that she’ll later sell at a marketplace, many miles from the desolate, ramshackle hut she shares with her blind, paralyzed mother, Nazife. In Turkish tradition, the youngest daughter must care for her parents until they die. Now in her 50s, Hatidze — the last female wild beekeeper in Europe — has never had a family of her own.

The two women live alone without running water or electricity, dependent on the proceeds from Hatidze’s carefully curated honey. Outside the hut, she keeps homemade beehives — cone-shaped handmade structures that look so primal and elemental they almost could’ve been constructed by the bees themselves. 

There’s almost no trace of modernism in the women’s lives, not a radio, newspaper or book. They speak a Turkish dialect so ancient that not even the filmmakers could understand them. But when Hatidze brings her honey to a modern market— after a 20 km journey by foot and bus — she buys herself a package of chestnut hair dye. In the dark hut, lit by the dull flame of a gas lamp, she uses her bare hands to apply the chemicals to her long hair — she’s going to a festival in a few days and wants to look nice for her friends and relatives.

The natural rhythms of the women’s lives are threatened when a noisy family drives their motor home and cattle to an adjacent plot of land. The new couple, also Turkish, has a passel of rambunctious children who rope and trip and otherwise torture their own calves and cows. The husband and father, Hussein, wants to cash in on the honey business, too, but refuses to listen to Hatidze’s advice on how to care for the bees.   

Hatidze bonds with one of the older boys, who tries to persuade his father to listen to the more experienced beekeeper’s advice. But Hussein has many mouths to feed and is being pressured by a greedy partner, who demands he supply him with more honey than is safe or sustainable for the bees — and Hatidze.

“Honeyland” — a big winner at Sundance and festivals worldwide — is a ravishingly beautiful and moving documentary that took three years to film. Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov were commissioned by The Nature Conservation Project (NCP) in Macedonia to create an environmental video, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooporation (SDC). 

While scouting the area with cinematographer Samir Ljumafound, the filmmakers first discovered Hatidze’s beeholes in the cliffs, and then learned that she and other wild beekeepers in the area practiced traditions that were generations old, and might soon be extinct. After researching Hatidze for three months, the team decided to focus on her for their film.

Observational documentaries require immersion, and the location the filmmakers had to immerse themselves was more challenging than most. Hatidze lived in a virtually uninhabitable area called Bekirlijia, which had been abandoned since the 1950s. There were no modern roads, no electricity, no water, and no stores. 

The filmmakers, one of their two cinematographers, and a sound person slept in tents. They had to bring in their own food and water, which limited their stays to no more than 5 days at a time. By the end of the 3 years, they had 400 hours of footage.

The directors didn’t start embed themselves with Hussein’s family until about three months after the neighbors arrived. When Hatidze and Hussein clashed over how to treat the bees, the filmmakers realized that the tension between Hatidze’s and Hussein’s conflicting approaches to nature would form the core of their story. They then befriended Hussein and his family, and started shooting the material that the film would need to develop them as characters and as disruptive forces in Hatidze’s life. 

“Honeyland” opens in U.S. theaters on July 26.