Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s quietly captivating documentary joins Macedonian beekeeper, Hatidze Muratova, in the midst of a routine she has performed for as long as she can remember. As the last beekeeper in her family (the film pitches her as being the last female wild beekeeper in Europe) she has dutifully upheld a tradition that has been passed down for generations. At 55-years-old she has never married, nor had any children, and lives in a tiny, one-room shack with her ailing 85-year-old mother, Nazife.
Stefanov and Kotevska’s camera slowly follows her as she moves along a precarious mountainside edge to carefully remove succulent honeycomb from a beehive built inside a crevice. Hatidze navigates it as easily as crossing the road, before collecting the honey, taking it back home and embarking on a four hour trip into the nearest city to sell her jars for 10 euros a pop at the local market. Her day-to-day life is as simple as her needs, although the opportunities to look beyond her home have been few and far between since she was a child.
An initial look at the opening 20 minutes of Honeyland may mislead you into thinking Hatidze enjoys an idyllic life surrounded by the serenity of the beautiful Macedonian countryside. While she appears to live in almost perfect harmony with the bees she tends for, it’s a harsh and lonely existence that doesn’t offer much outside of nurturing the hives and caring for her fragile mother who can no longer leave her bed. “I have become a tree,” her mother says in-between the sweet familial bickering they engage with most days. As the last daughter (three others died when she was younger) Hatidze is bound by a tradition that prevents her from marrying or bearing children while her parents are still alive.
The observational style leaves us to watch Hatidze go about her daily routines until they are suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a noisy family next door. At first the breaking of the silence is welcomed by Hatidze, as she comes to life playing with the seven children, enjoying the chance to interact with a youthful energy not felt at home. She's happy for the company and even passes on her beekeeping wisdom to the jack-of-all-trades father, Hussein, who seems to get involved in whatever will keep food in his kids’ mouths. Despite the large herd of cattle they arrive with, farmers they definitely are not, and as Hatidze will soon discover to her dismay, neither do they have the patience or attention to detail required to take care of a colony of wild bees.
Compared to the calmly organised nature of Hatidze’s life, it looks like a junkyard has fallen from the sky and landed in her neighbour’s front yard. It isn’t long before their disorganisation starts to negatively impact her as they try to churn out larger portions of honey without caring about the required preparation. Hussein has to provide for his family, that cannot be denied, but he does so without any consideration about its effect on those living close by who also need to survive. The environmental parallels become crystal clear at this point; Hussein and his loud, uncaring family representing harmful modernity, while Hatidze symbolises organic, traditional ways.
While the metaphorical layers are there to be applied, Stefanov and Kotevska’s film also works as a meditation on loneliness and our own connection with the natural world. Her mother is asleep or lying down for much of the day and Hatidze finds companionship with her bees, almost cooing to them as she goes about her business. Whether it’s setting a tortoise along its way, or pulling a single struggling bee out of the water, she has a deep empathy with the wildlife around her – and seemingly they with her - as despite only using a facemask for protection she is never stung (contrast that with her neighbours who are terrorised by their own bees). But she clearly enjoys the company of people even more and spending so much of her time in isolation unable to have meaningful conversations has clearly taken its toll.
As the title itself indicates, there is a lyricism to the local land and that is captured through the lens of Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma’s amber-hued photography. They were part of a small team who spent three years living alongside their subjects, an experience they say has completely transformed their view of the world. Great use of natural light accentuates the naturalism of both interior and exterior shots, sometimes transporting you back one or two centuries to another period entirely. It goes a long way to making this feel like a fictional story on occasion, rather than one so firmly rooted in a humanistic reality.
The two directors have created a passage back to another place and time away from the madness of the city-driven world we have become so accustomed to. It seems too good to be true because in reality it is. The sweetness of Hatidze’s relationship with her mother and her surroundings is tempered by unfulfilled dreams and an inability to seek pastures new. Occasionally she is framed underneath a passing airplane soaring across the sky, suggesting possibilities that lie elsewhere, and pointing towards a new path away from the mountains she may be able to tread one day.
Honeyland opens in select UK cinemas on September 13.