For almost sixty years Hatidže has walked and worked the stark, sparse valley and mountain landscape of remote northern Macedonia. We first see her crossing the empty countryside from afar, then meet her in closeup. Hard years and long winters have left her face a mirror of the weathered scree we watch her scrabble up. As she cracks the mortar and dislodges the stone plate, the hum of her hidden hive fills the screen for the first time in filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s extraordinarily compelling, poetic documentary Honeyland. Three years of filming – originally with no defined plan in mind – have produced a story that is, like all great documentaries, greater than fiction.
The stone walls of her village have crumbled, the roofs of the cottages caved in. No one else lives here now, just Hatidže and her sick, elderly mother. The only sounds are the cicadas, the mew of a stray cat, and the buzz of the bees that Hatidže cultivates in makeshift hives in the ruins of the dilapidated hamlet. It’s a tough, lonely life, with no company save for an elegiac character of a mother, bedbound and who can’t conceive of spring because “too many winters have passed”. With no electricity, the filmmakers capture a life vérité by the light of candle, fire and sunset, giving scenes of Hatidže sitting by her mother’s side the look of a renaissance oil painting.
She scrapes a living by selling her high quality honey for unworthy prices, a long train ride and world away in the capital of Skopje. Hatidže wonders what her life might have been had her father welcomed the matchmakers when she was young, had she had a son, and what might be to come when her mother passes. All the same, it’s a balanced, considered life. Her relationship with the bees is symbiotic; she’s put in the time, she sings to them, and she always ensures to leave half the honeycomb.
But one day the silence of the village is broken; as she watches from the hills, the sounds of cow bells, of trucks, tractors, and children drifts across to Hatidže. A nomadic family, the Sams, takes up residence in the rubble as they look for a new place to start a life. She watches them warily at first, but company is too alluring, and soon she’s laughing and singing with the children, playing on a rope swing, and teaching them about the bees. There’s little dialogue subtitled from the original Balkan Turkish as the directors – themselves not Turkish speakers – have ensured to make the story perfectly understandable on a purely visual level. As Hatidže’s life changes, so does the flow of the camera, loosening, opening up as she does. But you can feel the building tension in it as the film progresses and the family’s father starts asking questions about the bees. Soon he receives a potentially lucrative deal for whatever honey he can provide, but it threatens to impact the balance of the environment, and the new little community.
Honeyland is dotted with scenes that have a metaphorical, almost biblical resonance, like a tortoise trying and failing to escape the confines of its surroundings, Hatidže having to chase wolves away from the door, or the mysterious sickness that affects the neighbour’s cows. The characters and the relationships portrayed are fascinating, like the exploration of rural rituals and ways of life found in Hatidže’s relationship with her mother. Some characters could not have fit the film better if they had been written. The man offering the Sam family the honey deal is like a literal manifestation of the ills of capitalism; he’s so focused on the output and has no care for the consequences. He’s a villain that cannot stop himself from gorging on it, cutting away slabs of honeycomb and feasting on it while syrup drops down his chin.
A rebuke of the destructive forces of capitalism, and its voracious exploitation of natural resources until they’re exhausted, lies at the heart of the film. Along with its environmental themes, and the protagonist’s contrasting ideologies, this makes it a beautiful, haunting encapsulation of our times.
Honeyland is in cinemas from 5th March through Umbrella Entertainment.