Beautifully shot by cinematographers Samir Ljuma and Fejmi Daut, “Honeyland” follows the life of Hatidze, a beekeeper in her early 50s who lives with her ailing mother Nazife in the mountains of Macedonia. The land is barren, there is no electricity, yet the two women have managed to survive in their small ramshackle hut as the generations beforehand. When an unruly family moves into the area and threatens their way of life, directors Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska are there to capture the impact cinéma vérité style. Vivid storytelling and visually stunning.
The film’s opening shot takes its cue from last year’s Alex Honnold documentary “Free Solo” as we watch Hatidze climb up the face of a mountain, walk along a narrow ledge, and make her way to a beehive hidden behind a plate of rock, to harvest several honeycombs without getting stung. Dressed in a long-sleeved blouse and green headscarf, the middle-aged Hatidze makes it look easy as she totes her haul back home where it will be packaged and sold at the market in Skopje located 12 miles away.
The honey is the only way that Hatidze can afford to buy food and medicine for her 86-year-old bedridden mother who is almost blind. The inconspicuous camera captures tender moments between the mother-daughter as tough love takes over most of their candlelit evenings as the two bicker into the night, usually started by Hatidze’s overbearing nature to treat her mom as a daughter in a role reversal. Of course, Hatidze only has the best intentions like trying to get her mother to eat, but Nazife has plenty of fire inside as she retorts with “I’m not dying. I’m just making your life a misery. And I don’t intend to die.” The discord between the pair is minute compared to the evident love they have for each other.
Just as Stefanov and Kotevska get the audience acquainted with the women’s tranquil way of life, the film introduces tension when a nomadic Turkish family led by patriarch Hussain, moves in next door. Suddenly the noise level goes from 0 to 100 as Hussain’s wife Ljutvie screams and yells at their rambunctious kids (seven to be exact) while Hussain tries his hand at raising cattle. Even though she never married or had kids, Hatidze’s interaction with the rowdy bunch proves that she would have made an excellent mother. There are several warmhearted scenes as she befriends the young children.
Early in the film, Hatidze explains her beekeeping philosophy. She only harvests half the honey leaving the rest for the bees to survive on during the winter. As the story unfolds, we watch as Hussain decides to try his hand at beekeeping with disastrous results, neglecting Hatidze’s advice. Betrayal seeps into the story yet despite Hussain’s questionable behavior, “Honeyland” presses on without a real villain. Hatidze and her mother, and Hussain and his family, are all in the same boat. They are survivors just one step away from dire consequences in a world that relies on the delicate balance between nature and humanity.
Over 400 hours of footage was shot over the course of three years to make up the 85-minute film. The unparalleled access to these families and the level of intimacy established between the subjects and the filmmakers make “Honeyland” an unforgettable viewing experience.