Directors/ Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov
Watched on Hulu
What begins as an observational portrait of a Macedonian beekeeper evolves into a parable with a universal message: when greed upsets the balance of nature, the very survival of a species is threatened. There is nothing new in that. We’ve read enough stories and seen enough environmentally-themed documentaries to understand what happens when ecological warriors come up against the brute transactional force of capitalism. Capitalism usually wins.
But what takes you by surprise in this film is that the protagonist, a woman named Hatidze Muratova, is no warrior. She makes a subsistence living tending a few hives in the countryside, which produce just enough high-quality honey for her to live off of. She takes care of her blind and deaf mother and listens to news of the world on a tiny transistor radio. They live in the crumbling remains of a stone house in an abandoned village. They have lots of cats. Hatidze, it seems, just wants to be left alone.
Then a nomadic family of ersatz farmers invades the valley where she lives, bringing in a herd of cattle and sheep and pitching their tents and trailers nearby. Suddenly, Hatidze’s peaceful existence is shattered and her very livelihood threatened. The family, a squabbling couple and their seven children, are urged by a local buyer to start raising bees themselves. Hatidze, wary at first, offers tips on how to ensure the bees keep producing enough honey for all of them: sell half the honey they produce, but keep half in the hive. If the bees sense their honey is depleted, they will buzz off for good.
But the patriarch of the family, Hussein, under pressure from the merchant to not only produce the honey but to also tend to their dozens of animals, is a hapless ne’er do well. His bees begin stealing from Hatidze’s hives. He is constantly being stung. His wife berates him. His cows die. Even one of his sons, a young teen, is always telling him to–literally–fuck off. The boy ends up spending more time with Hatidze, their friendship an oasis of calm for the kid and a source of joy for her, since she doesn’t have children of her own.
Honeyland is indeed a parable for our time. And it is lovingly made, by turns touching and raucous. But there is something a little suspicious in its construction. The directors, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, and their two cinematographers, have said in interviews they filmed over three years, spending about thirty days total on location. They also said they didn’t pay attention to the family of nomads until Hatidze introduced them, after the family had already been there a few months, something they apparently do every spring. Yet, the family is filmed arriving over the horizon, as if the filmmakers were lucky to be there on the day they arrived. There are cutaways to Hatidze watching them out her window. Was all this reenacted for the camera?
There are conversations and moments of interaction that also seem like genuine strokes of amazing luck for the directors. Since they don’t rely on narration or on-screen text or interviews to deliver basic information, these interactions have to move the story along. Were they also staged? Why is it the family seems so willing to let themselves be portrayed as clumsy fools? Were they convinced they were actors in a drama?
Critic Stuart Klawans, writing about the film in The Nation, is also skeptical, wondering “when the paterfamilias, Hussein, starts asking her about this beekeeping business, are you watching him broach the subject for the first time? Or did the filmmakers perhaps ask him to sit down with Hatidze and show how their conversation went?”
The possibility of reenactment, or of outright staging, is not a crime. It doesn’t make the movie less beautiful or make us question the reality of Hatidze’s lifestyle–not necessarily anyway–but it does cast a pall over one’s enjoyment of the film. Was the family really that awful to each other, or were they playing to the camera? Was Hatidze’s existence really that threatened, or was the dramatic conflict enhanced to help sell the film to international audiences? Directors Kotevska and Stefanov said that after the filming and editing were completed, they helped Hatidze and her mother buy a new house. Was this part of the plan all along? Hatidze appears in several scenes to be genuinely upset about what is happening to her hives, but in other scenes she seems less stressed out.
My feelings while watching this film was a mix of admiration of the filmmakers’ patience and craft in bringing the unique character of Hatidze alive, but also an awareness of things happening behind the camera that made me question the veracity of their intent. Are we as viewers reacting to real life or make-believe; did what we see actually happen or was it altered for our enjoyment?