Honeyland review – A small miracle of a film

6th September 2020

Dirs: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov. With: Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam. Running time: 89 mins.

Honeyland is a documentary you can’t quite believe exists; its success in the US and Europe may be down to people going to check whether it is an actual film you pay actual money to sit and marvel at. Even if you had the crazy thought “let’s make a movie about a Macedonian beekeeper”, how would you find a Macedonian beekeeper to make a movie about? Fly to Macedonia for starters, yes, but one doubts Honeyland’s subject Hatidze – who lives in a stone shack in the wilds with her blind, immobile mother – is listed in the phone book. How did directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov reach her? Did they merely follow the buzz?

What they’ve brought back is a film born of three impulses: to preserve an all but vanished artisanal tradition; to illustrate how the other half still lives; and, lastly, to have a good old-fashioned gawp. There is an extraordinary amount to be gawped at, all told, not the least the jawdropping details of Hatidze’s routine. Edging along high, rocky cliffs, the middle-aged beekeeper extracts stones behind which hide vast, buzzing honeycombs that she removes bare-armed to sell in the markets of downtown Skopje; before leaving these impromptu hives, she pours wild honey on the ground, her way of ensuring thirstier bees return to the scene.

Yet no sooner has Honeyland established its subject’s peaceable existence than a trailer pulls up at an adjacent property, disgorging a farmer, Hussein, his wife, and as many cows and ducklings as there are children. Now the film erupts into chaotic life, the bees’ gentle hum drowned out by honking cattle, marital rows, and the sound of ill-attended offspring pushing one another over for fun. Here is a neighbours-from-hell scenario that sitcom writers would frankly kill for – and Hatidze’s hardscrabble existence gets no easier when Hussein announces that he, too, fancies a shot at this beekeeping lark.

One reason for Honeyland’s success is that it’s innately funny viewing: for an hour, it resembles some satirical vision of life without basic workplace regulation. Hatidze crawls on hands and knees to tap a hive located halfway up a felled tree bridging a river; Hussein turns up with friend and chainsaw, and reduces the tree to firewood. Kotevska and Stefanov build a sly contrast between their heroine, as patient around her neighbours’ unruly kids as she is with the bees, and the human blunderbuss Hussein – the Homer Simpson of the former Yugoslav republics – who can’t open a hive without everyone in two square miles getting stung.

The register shifts, however, when Hussein begins mass-producing honey in a way Hatidze, working solo, never could: soon, his thick swarms overwhelm his neighbour’s more peaceable bees, transforming a bucolic, amber-hued romp into a pointed comment on economies of scale in unregulated markets. It’s a big rhetorical leap, but Honeyland gets there organically, via microscopically close observation of humans and insects alike, and a super-sharp editing strategy. These filmmakers never labour this subtext, knowing that a choice cut – from, say, a becalmed Hatidze to Hussein torching a hillside – will make their point in eminently cinematic ways.

Gradually, this small miracle of a film draws us into these lives, revealing a poignant injustice: where her neighbour/nemesis can mine this land’s resources before moving on, Hatidze is tied to this remote patch by that ailing mother. I still don’t know how these directors found these women, beyond asking around; even then, they’d have had to commit to spending several seasons living adjacent to their darkened hovel. I do know this, though: our documentarists are now routinely putting in more effort than most fiction-makers – and if Honeyland’s box-office returns are anything to go by, they’re getting the sweet rewards they deserve.

Mike McCahill