From the title and the poster image, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is a documentary purely about bees and how they're the world's most important pollinator of food crops. Honeyland is so much more than a story about bees and touches on a lifestyle that would be unfathomable for many.
Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Koteska this 85 min long sub-titled documentary was a debut feature from these two documentarians. It was also one of the most awarded films at this year's Sundance Film Festival and was the Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary; World Cinema documentary Special Jury Award for Impact For Change and World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography. It was also a nominee for Best Documentary Feature and Best Foreign Language Film at the 92nd Academy Awards 2020.
Nestled in an isolated mountain region deep within the Balkans, Hatidze Muratova lives with her ailing mother in a village without roads, electricity or running water. She's the last in a long line of wild beekeepers working under harsh conditions to seek out a living farming honey in small batches. She walks them to the closest city to be sold, a mere four hours walk away. Her peaceful existence is disrupted by the arrival of a nomad family of seven rambunctious children, a heard of cattle and roaring engines.
Hatidze is open to having new neighbours and meets them with an open heart, engaging with the children, taking delight in having company and getting much-needed respite from her isolation, loneliness and hardship caring for her mother. She freely shares with them her brandy (perhaps not so much the brandy) and her tried-and-true beekeeping advice.
It's not long before Hussein the head of the family sniffs out the opportunity for income and forays into selling his own honey. With seven young mouths to feed, he soon goes on the hunt for profit, casting aside all the advice given to him by Hatidze.
This results in chaos and threatens Hatidze's very existence and way of life, not to mention a change in their relationship. It also throws a spanner in the works between nature and humanity, harmony and discord, exploitation and sustainability.
This debut feature was shot over three years by a skeleton crew committed to an intimate collaboration between filmmakers and subject, and it shows. It's a tough and tender portrait that is heartbreakingly, achingly, beautiful. It's a glimpse of a fast-disappearing way of life that's isolated, tough and unforgiving. It's also an unforgettable testament to one extraordinary woman's resilience.
The Honeyland story began long before humans ever lived in the region, but this story begins with its last two remaining inhabitants: Hatidze and her mother Nazife. Hatidze is much like the bees she hunts in that she's committed her own life to the care of her mother, as the bees do their queen bee which never leaves the hive. Her story is also a miniature representation of what it would be on a larger, global scale. How closely intertwined nature and humanity are, and how much we stand to lose if we ignore this fundamental connection.
The camera crew here are just the observers and lets the subjects play out their lives naturally, and seemingly oblivious of being the focus of this documentary. It lets life happen without interference, no matter the circumstance, thus giving the audience a true emotional account of such a harsh life. It's not dialogue-driven, yet easily understandable through visual and visceral communication.
It's mesmerisingly beautiful, quietly powerful, and filled with vividly observed detail. You can't help your heart aching a little or a lot (in my case) for the lives you see before you, set in such isolation and hardship. It's beautiful, haunting, tough and tender; the kind of film that's a must-see for all cinephiles.