HONEYLAND is largely set in the remote North Macedonian village of Bekirlija, where the film’s subjects live in near-total isolation without electricity or running water. Here, Hatidze Muratova is one of the last wild beekeepers in all of Europe. Hatidze’s methods may sound somewhat quaint, for instance, she uses the cool stone walls of the village’s abandoned buildings to store her bees, as opposed to modern hives. Yet there is an undeniable method and skill to her work honed through years of experience. In two standout sequences, the filmmakers follow Hatidze’s four-hour journey to sell her honey at markets in Skopje. Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov cleverly follow up her confident sales spiel with impressed testimonials from customers, almost justifying the eye- watering price of ten euros per jar.
The most fascinating element of Hatidze’s work is her focus on conserving and respecting the environment. Indeed, the simple mantra ‘take half, leave half’ is repeated every time she collects a honeycomb, emphasising her perception of the bees as partners. It’s a sentiment that may seem obvious, but one which HONEYLAND embraces to deliver a powerful cautionary tale. Towards the end of the first act, a family of Turkish farmers move to the village and strike up a friendship with Hatidze. After initially focusing on breeding cattle, patriarch Hussein Sam is eventually inspired to begin his own honey business, albeit with tools like hives and bee smokers. As Hussein’s customers become greedier and demand larger quantities, the film delivers some terrific slow-burning tension. I won’t spoil exactly how things fall apart, but the subtlety and lack of intervention from the filmmakers renders the breakdown of the neighbours’ friendship even more devastating.
However, HONEYLAND has even more to offer than an engaging story, simultaneously being a gorgeously shot testament to the natural world. The flashier exterior cinematography is typically used to reaffirm the film’s call for conservation, most notably during the Sam family’s departure from the village. Kotevska and Stefanov opt for a super wide shot here, with the surrounding woods utterly dwarfing the humans who sought too much control. A similar sense of scale can be felt as Hatidze walks through the ruined structures of Bekirlija past enormous open plains. Once again, the notion that life extends beyond our species is perhaps something you’ve heard or seen before, but it’s a particularly humbling and effective reminder.
Yet despite the scope of its message, HONEYLAND is above all an intimate account of one woman’s remarkable existence. Hatidze is an unassuming subject who openly wonders what opportunities she might have missed out on, but continues working for the sake of her family. If you’re anything like me and go into HONEYLAND with no expectations of wild beekeeping, you’ll be hooked on the small details. Likewise, focusing on a real individual only heightens the impact of its emotional final minutes. Whether you’re an avid documentary fan or struggle to connect with the genre, this simple but absorbing film will go down as smooth as honey.