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.