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HONEYLAND

Producer: Ljubomir Stefanov and Atanas Georgiev
Director: Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska
Writer: Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam and Mustafa Sam
Stars: Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam and Mustafa Sam
Studio: Neon

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It’s a fortuitous occurrence when a documentary project naturally develops a powerful dramatic arc as it proceeds. That seems to have been the case with Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s “Honeyland,” a remarkable portrait of a Balkan beekeeper that comes gradually to depict the demise of her way of life as it unfolded over the three years of filming.

When we first encounter Hatidze Muratova, she is clambering up a steep mountainside to remove a slab of stone and reach a hive from which she carefully extracts the comb and a measure of its honey. The vertiginous camerawork of Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma is breathtakingly beautiful.

It remains so as she comes home to her little stone house where she cares for her ill eighty-five year old mother Nazife. It’s a place devoid of modern conveniences like running water and electricity, and apart from the dog and cat that live with the two women, there is no one nearby—apart from the hive that Hatidze keeps behind a stone in the outer wall. As she will explain later, when she takes her honey to the Macedonian capital of Skopje to sell to buyers in the open markets and purchase odds and ends—like hair dye and a fan for her mother (as well as, presumably, batteries for her radio at home)—all the Albanians, and her fellow Turks, have left the rocky, mountainous region where she and her mother live.

The scenes in the home between Hatidze and Nazife have a genuine air; the daughter must shout, sometimes in exasperation, for the mother, who is facially impaired and bedridden, to hear her, and the two vacillate between bickering and expressions of mutual concern. Here again the cameramen do outstanding work, creating visuals that are luminous and painterly in the candlelight.

Their isolation is shattered one morning when Hussein and Ljutvie Sam, along with their brood of children, noisily arrive in a decrepit caravan to take up residence in an abandoned farm nearby. Hussein will raise cattle there, and plant corn to feed them with, helped by his wife and older sons. Hatidze welcomes them and is affectionate toward the kids.

Hussein notices her beekeeping activities and is pleasantly surprised by the price she receives for her honey. Seeing it as a possible source of income himself, he attempts to follow her lead, bringing in the necessary boxes to establish hives in. But she warns him that the proper way to extract the honey is to “take half, leave half”—because if the bees find it all gone, they will begin to attack one another, along with nearby hives like hers.

Hussein does not listen, of course. Desperate for money and taking a more hardheaded capitalist approach under prodding from a buyer who wants the product especially after his cows fall ill, he exhausts his hives, and his bees become predatory, attacking Hatidze’s. Meanwhile his relationships with his wife and boys deteriorate, encouraging his eldest son, Mustafa, to gravitate toward Hatidze.

As her fortunes decline, Hatidze becomes more introspective, contemplating what her life might have been had she married and had children. She asks Nazife why suitors for her hand had been turned away (her mother places the blame on her father), and confides to Mustafa her regret that she never had a son like him. In the end the Sams move away, their experiment at ranching a failure, and Hatidze is left totally alone, her way of life severely damaged if not destroyed.

“Honeyland” would be a depressing experience were it not for Hatidze’s strength and unwillingness to bend to misfortune. She remains an indomitable figure even at the close. Nor is Hussein portrayed as a mere villain. True, he berates his wife as lazy, and pushes his sons very hard, laughing when they’re stung by the bees. But he emerges as a man simply trying to get by, and feed his family, in a hard, unforgiving world.

With images that are realistic but also frequently enthralling (so much so that one wonders whether some have been staged), the film has been edited from a great mass of footage—four hundred hours in all—to a mere eighty-five minutes by co-producer Atanas Georgiev. His cut presents a beautifully proportioned cameo of the changes the arrival of the Sams brings to Hatidze’s life, based as it is on a tradition that is inevitably coming to an end. In the process it has broader implications, calling attention to ecological factors that threaten insects as well as humans.

At the same time, one wonders what might be found in the hundreds of additional hours the filmmakers shot. One suspects that much of the context to the story told here has been jettisoned in favor of dramatic simplicity, and that “Honeyland” might have been of epic rather than vignette length. But even as one ponders what might have been left out, one should be thankful for what Stefanov and Kotevska have achieved: a moving, intimate portrayal of a strong woman whose traditional mode of life, played out in harmony with nature, is imperiled by circumstances she cannot control.

COLD WAR (ZIMNA WOJNA)

Producer: Tanya Seghatchian and Ewa Puszczynska
Director: Pawek Pawlikowski
Writer: Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki and Piotri Borkowski
Stars: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cedric Kahn, Jeanne Valibar, Adam Ferency, Adam Woronowicz and Anna Zagorska
Studio: Amazon Studios

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In his Oscar-winning “Ida,” Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski offered an emotionally devastating commentary on his country’s history during World War II and its communist aftermath through the story of a young postulant who leaves a Catholic convent in search of her past. His new film also confronts the grim reality of Poland’s post-war experience, but does so by following an intimate relationship as tempestuous as the titular standoff between the eastern and western blocks against which the story is set. (Reportedly his script was inspired by his own parents’ stormy marriage.)

The plot is, in purely narrative terms, a very simple one. In 1949 world-weary musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and his acerbic partner Irena (Agata Kulesza) are being taken around the countryside by a bumptious driver named Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc). Their effort may have originated in a quest to preserve endangered folk-music forms, but it turns into a government-supported enterprise to audition local talent for a troupe of folk singer-dancers, an ensemble that can present national culture to the world—and, of course, serve as a propaganda tool for the socialist regime.

One of the young ladies they encounter is a spitfire named Zula (Joanna Kulig), who might not have the purest voice in the world, and will have to be taught to dance properly, but whose vibrant personality marks her as a prospective star. Wiktor chooses her for placement in their new school, despite Agata’s misgivings, and soon he and his protégé are passionately in love.

The film follows the relationship over the course of decades as it burns hot and cold, just as the reality between east-west does. The troupe gains recognition in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself, and eventually is employed as a political tool in the west as well. Its success makes the career of Kaczmarek, who becomes the manager and compliantly follows the orders of his government superiors.

But the lovers, while both yearning to break free of rigid control from above, can never shed their selfish needs. Each suspects the other of betraying their secrets to Kaczmarek, and not without cause. Moments of utter commitment alternate with angrily accusatory outbursts and ruptures, until, when they hastily plan escape to the west, Zulu decides not to go through with it, leaving Wiktor to make a life for himself as a solitary exile.

But that does not end things. Wiktor will travel to Yugoslavia to see her again, endangering himself in the process (indeed, he does fall under scrutiny of the security services, and there is a chance he will wind up in the USSR). Zula eventually finds her way to Paris and reunites with Wiktor, and the old passion is reignited, though so too is their habit of hurting one another. It is, in effect, the apparently universal tale of a man and a woman who can’t live with one another, but can’t endure being apart; it’s just that in this case it’s played out on both sides of the iron curtain as the world is changing.

“Cold War” is a challenging work, marked by abrupt time shifts and narrative ellipses fashioned by Pawlikowski and editor Jaroslaw Kamiński that the viewer must work to understand, but it’s made with exquisite care, just as “Ida” was. Shot by cinematographer Łukasz Żal, as the earlier film was, in black-and-white and the boxy Academy ratio, the images are subtly composed, but designed for emotional as much as visual impact, with changes in contrast mirroring those of mood. Equally important is the extraordinarily eclectic score, which ranges from folk numbers and Stalin-era proletarian pieces to jazz, western popular songs and snatches of Bach; it too reflects the mercurial inner lives of Wiktor and Zula.

So do the intense performances of Kulig and Kot, who hold little, if anything, back in conveying the lovers’ radical swings. Hers is the splashier turn, since Zula is the utterly extroverted part of the pair, but Kot anchors things with his more studied, somber approach. And while Kulesza doesn’t get as much opportunity as you might wish to express Irena’s cynicism, Szyc paints an incisive portrait of a bland apparatchik who makes the most of the chances for advancement that come his way.

Pawlikowski’s film is a brilliantly melancholy portrayal of two people who can’t resist one another but are doomed to destroy their chance of enduring happiness, as well as the oppressive system they’re trapped in.