Particularly compelling documentaries are at their most captivating when they expose audiences to worlds, people, customs, traditions, issues and politics foreign from our own, expanding our understanding of the world (and sometimes our role in it) through fact-based, real-life stories. Name your subject; chances are there’s a documentary about it. And if there isn’t, give it time; some clever filmmaker will surely tackle it before long.
For now, check “the story of the last Macedonian beekeeper” off the list of docs to be made, as Honeyland, co-directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, accomplishes the task. Crafted from more than 400 (!) hours of footage, Honeyland centers on Hatidze, a woman in her mid-fifties (we learn she was born in 1964) who sustains herself and her elderly, infirm mother with her honey business, keeping rows and rows of bees on their small plot in a rural (and apparently otherwise abandoned) town a four-hour walk from the city where she sells her sweet product.
Honeyland begins boldly, as the filmmakers follow the surprisingly nimble Hatidze across fields and up a mountain to harvest honey from a wild hive, one nestled into the crags on the side of a cliff. She is clearly unlike anyone you or I have ever met before, and following her through her day-to-day activities becomes a bit like watching a real life (and very endearing) sitcom: shouting ever more loudly so her mother can hear her; talking to her bees like they’re her friends (they likely are); shopping for hair dye at the market after she’s negotiated a good price for her jars of fresh honey.
But a film is only as good as its biggest conflict (or something), and this one is a doozie: a caravan chugs its way into Hatidze’s little town, an itinerant family setting up home—complete with an RV and a herd of cattle—in an abandoned lot next to our heroine. If all that sounds a bit too convenient for a documentary (how could the filmmakers have known Hussein, his wife and their seven unruly children would come traipsing into town?), rest assured that it plays that way in the film, too. Hatidze welcomes the family as any good neighbor would, offering advice and insight into their new surroundings, sharing her brandy around a campfire and even giving Hussein a leg up in his burgeoning beekeeping business. She shows him what to do to care for the bees and how (and when) to collect the honey, lessons she’s learned over years of perfecting (and sustaining) her hives.
Sharing more of the “plot” of the film would wander into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Hatidze’s generosity does not exactly work out for her. By the third act of the film, the woman we’ve come to feel something for (pride in her persistence and determination; appreciation of her simple yet satisfying way of life) is a shell of who she was, the outside world come to beat her down. (Been there, girlfriend.) It’s a cautionary tale, to be sure. Bees and beekeeping is already a complicated, demanding profession; doing it in the wild as Hatidze does is an even more delicate balancing act, one dependent on nature, nurture and more than a bit of good fortune.
There’s plenty to appreciate in Honeyland, not the least of which is its window into Hatidze’s otherwise isolated world and her dedication to her craft. And through the narrative of Hussein, his family and their calamitous impact on Hatidze’s way of life, the filmmakers craft a truly gut-wrenching picture of modernization and commercialism, forces that even the most remote entrepreneurs can’t elude. That the narrative feels a bit too crafted is a bummer, to say the least; surely in 400 hours of footage, a bit of nuance could’ve found its way into the proceedings.
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