Oscar-nominated documentary Honeyland started life as a government-funded short film about conservation efforts in a central region of North Macedonia, but after the filmmakers met the extraordinary Hatidze it turned into an observational documentary driven entirely by it’s subjects with the narrative arc and tensions of a Hollywood film. However, the heart remains – even from what it originally started as. With the foregrounding of the landscape alongside the characters and clear environmental message that they represent, it is them that are telling this story just as much as the filmmakers.
Hatidze Muratova, the central subject and driving force behind the film, is thought to be the only remaining female wild beekeeper in Europe. She uses traditional, sustainable techniques that have been passed down from her ancestors; the bees are her friends, and the honey her only source of income. The striking opening scene shows Hatidze climbing a rocky cliff side to harvest honey; she seems calm and jovial, wears no gloves, doesn’t get stung and sings to the bees “half for me, half for you” which sums up her philosophy towards nature and her aim to rebalance the ecosystem. It is also how she keeps her bees alive to feed herself and her partially blind and severely ill mother that she lives with and cares for in her remote abandoned village. However, this utopia is upended by the arrival of the nomadic Sam family who are ranchers and bring cattle. However, with seven children to feed, they struggle and the father, Hussein, takes an interest in Hatidze’s beekeeping. She teaches him the techniques and her mantra, “half for me, half for you”, but his urgent need for money and pressure from a greedy outside buyer forces him to deplete the source of honey, with dire consequences.
Clearly, with the narrative and dramatic tension, Honeyland has the structure of fiction. It is so intimate and emotionally charged that sometimes it feels more like a familiar fictional neo-realist film, in the vein of Roberto Rossellini, than a documentary. It has such colourful characters and a seemingly fully formed and structured narrative that we get full, uninterrupted access to – you could be forgiven for forgetting you’re watching a documentary. Stylistically, the line between fact and fiction is purposefully blurred; highlighting the story, the people and the powerful message rather than the form. It is rare that a documentary has such natural and unexpected drama but it comes as no surprise once you know that the filmmakers filmed over 400 hours of footage, and these hours clearly allow for moments in which we see these people at their very best and very worst.
Not only is Honeyand telling a story, like all documentaries, but it has naturally weaved a narrative; with a traditional story arc, heroes, villains, its moments of frantic action, quiet reflection and a tension between two opposing ways of life. However, as a documentary and not a fiction film, it lets the events tell the story and it makes no judgement nor does it overtly frame anyone as good or bad – apart from maybe the consumerist society that has forced them into this situation. The tension arises from the Sam family not taking Haditze’s advice (that keeps her alive) of taking half and leaving half for the bees, of giving back to nature and working hand and hand with the ecosystem as it’s equal. They are shown to be destroying natural resources and disturbing the environment for short term financial gain, but they have their reasons; they also need to eat and have children to feed that would starve without this money. These reasons are made clear throughout the film with moments that induce honest sympathy. This story between two neighbours in an abandoned village in North Macedonia becomes a microcosm of society’s current predicament; Hatidze urging Hussein not to take all the honey – to be patient and respectful towards nature with a sustainable practice that has worked for generations – and Hussein feeling like he has no other option to survive but to take advantage of the land.
Like many documentaries, there is no exposition or explanation of setting, characters or story. We are dropped right into a world unknown to many of us and the story unfolds immediately. However, unlike countless other documentaries there are no interviews or voice-overs – it is completely observational. Using cinema verite techniques to let the camera, on its own, find the truth and the story, letting the people and the landscape shine. By the end of the film we know these people, this place and this land. Through stolen, personal conversations between those in close quarters and sweeping wide shots of the severe and isolated land we know more of their experience than any talking head interview could tell us, we comprehend the struggles they face and by the end we hope for the future; if maybe we were all a bit more like Hatidze.
Honeyland is available from Dogwoof on DVD & BluRay February 24th
by Madeleine Sinclair
Madeleine Sinclair is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth, The Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.