Rating: (3 stars)
Winner of three separate documentary filmmaking awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — as well as garnering prizes and nominations from several other festivals — “Honeyland” sneaks up on you in a quiet yet powerful way. On paper, a documentary about a woman who ekes out a meager living raising bees (and harvesting their honey) in the remote mountains of what is now known as North Macedonia doesn’t sound especially mesmerizing.
And “mesmerizing” may be the wrong word anyway. The film by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov is a strange and curious thing: part fly-on-the-wall anthropology, part ecological fable.
Presented with no voice-over — and only the context that you are able to glean by sticking with its (in all likelihood) unfamiliar details — this surprisingly beautiful little movie centers on Hatidze Muratova, a middle-aged beekeeeper who lives with her elderly, infirm mother and survives by selling honey from the hives she tends in a traditional, environmentally sound way. To customers in Skopje, the capital, a 12-mile train ride away, Hatidze takes only half the honey, for instance, leaving the rest behind for the bees.
But when a new neighbor moves next door (Hussein Sam), with his wife, seven unruly kids and a herd of cattle, all hell breaks loose. Hussein also sets up hives, but, under pressure to increase his honey production from his buyer, he over-harvests recklessly, leaving his starving colonies to attack and kill off Hatidze’s bees. Arguments and finger-pointing ensue.
Shot over three years, and in a slightly disjointed manner dictated by the fact that Kotevska and Stefanov could film for only five days at a time before having to return to civilization to restock their supplies, “Honeyland” can be challenging to follow at times. The placid rhythms of the first act give way to chaos after Hussein and his bickering brood set up shop.
Ultimately, though, like Hatidze’s beekeeping, the film is worth the patience it requires. By the end of “Honeyland,” the story of warring beekeepers (and the parallel struggle between nature-in-harmony vs. greed) becomes something more than that. “Honeyland” is a parable about life in — and out of — balance.
Its cautionary message is delivered in a small package, one that’s almost so plain you’d miss it. But its implications for all of us, about how easy it is to upset the equilibrium of the universe, are huge.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema and the Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains some crude language. In Turkish, Bosnian and Macedonian with subtitles. 87 minutes.