Review: Honeyland

The story behind the making of this extraordinary documentary is perhaps even more fascinating than the movie itself. Filmmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska reportedly were looking for a subject in the Republic of North Macedonia and heard about an older woman who still followed the traditional methods for honey-making, which does not require the keeping of bees, but rather relies on finding beehives in the wild and extracting just enough honey so as not to upset the lives of insects. In order to make their film, however, not only did Stefanov and Kotevska have to track down the woman, who lives in a remote valley that can’t be reached by normal transportation most of the year, but they had to follow her up steep mountains and into dense fields. They also had to somehow make camp in her village, which has no running water nor electricity save that supplied by battery.

Most people who watch the movie have no understanding of how such a life can be lived in the 21st century, and this patronizing mindset points up the true meaning of the movie, which is that the idea of sustainability means living as close to nature as possible. Hatidze, the subject of the movie, is not some romantic flower child but someone who struggles with poverty and the ravages of aging. She does what she does to survive and not to make a point. At times the sheer beauty of the photography feels almost condescending, since it might make some viewers mistake Hatidze’s life for an idyll. But Stefanov and Kotevska know what they’re doing. For every gold-kissed sunset and miraculous uncovering of a busy, teeming, dripping honeycomb there are scenes of Hatidze struggling to feed her elderly, unwell mother in their tiny hovel; or taking the long ride to Skopje to sell her wares so as to make whatever money she needs to get by; or sitting in the dark with only a candle, discussing why she never married and whether her life, and death, has any meaning.

But the most effective means to their thematic end is the filmmakers’ contrasting Hatidze’s life with that of a family who has moved into the village to raise cattle, an occupation that is, by definition, unsustainable, at least in the way they go about it. The family, lorded over by a blustering, mostly imcompetent partriarch named Ljutvie, is merely trying to make as much money in as short a time as possible, and their impatience feels egregious when compared to Hatidze’s careful way of going about her own business. There’s an uncomfortable tension between her and Ljutvie that adds dramatic import to a film about living as responsibly on the earth as possible. And the most edifying, and satisfying, aspect of this contrast is that Hatidze knows that it’s responsible, because she knows what she’s doing (her understanding of bee behavior is complete and intimate) and can see how Ljutvie’s ranching efforts are possibly interfering with her work. Honeyland has been praised for its gorgeous depiction of a harsh lifestyle that will soon be gone, but, more importantly, it’s a film that tells us without sentimentality how to live.

In Turkish, Macedonian and Serbo-Croation. Now playing in Tokyo at Uplink Shibuya (03-6825-5503).

Honeyland home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Trice Films

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