A woman walks down a dusty, sunbaked road. She hikes along a mountain ridge, prying a small, flat slab from the craggy wall with a small steel tool. When she removes it, you can hear the buzzing of bees filling the soundtrack. This is her secret honey stash; she will extract one dripping comb after another, placing them tenderly in a circular basket, before replacing the stone. Then she returns to her Macedonian village, working with her makeshift hive. This is how she makes her living, selling the honey at a market in a faraway town. Later, the woman — her name is Hatidze Muratova — goes down into a pit-like area near the cottage where she lives with her elderly mother, and opens up a hole in the wall. She breaks apart the gooey combs and collects the nectar inside them. Then she pours half of what’s she’s procured on a rock. “50 percent for you, 50 percent for me,” she says. The tiny creatures lap it up.
Poetic is a word that goes thrown around easily and abundantly, especially when it comes to documentaries that forego any sort of standard interview-clip-context-rinse-repeat format. But it’s hard to think of a better adjective to describe the early sequences of Honeyland, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s award-winning, years-in-the-making portrait of rural regionalism and lost art forms. Muratova is the last female beekeeper in Europe — this is according to the press notes; the narration-less film never mentions this fact — but more importantly, she’s one of the last practitioners of a bygone agrarian method of living in harmony with nature. Her attempt to continue this tradition will be challenged by modernity, or at least a relative version of it. But before that, the filmmakers want to immerse you in her world — the way the light hits at dusk on the hillside, the sound of tiny drones whizzing past, the careful handling of the honeycombs, the sensation of sitting in a dark room with illuminated by a single candle. They want you to feel what it’s like to do what she does and where she does it. All the better, then, to give you a sense of what’s being jeopardized.
Because soon, Muratova has new neighbors, a family who isn’t quite as adept or conscious of older beekeeping methods that allow for long-term sustainability. She tells the patriarch that a standard harvest happens in September or October, and produces about 10 kilos of honey. He’s made a deal with someone who wants 200 kilos at once, however. So he ramps things up and gets his brood, who aren’t crazy about being repeatedly stung in the face, to start gathering as much of the sweet and sticky liquid gold as quickly as possible. This weakens the combs and drains the resources. It also begins to affect Muratova’s own hives as well. You can see where this is going.
Bees have long been considered the barometers of Mother Nature’s health, which makes Honeyland feel like watching an ecological car wreck in slow motion. And should you want to look for a metaphor for the way late capitalism has a way of sucking things dry and screwing anyone or anything in the vicinity, it’s sitting right there comfortably on top of the text. But what makes this documentary feel so extraordinary is the way Kotevska and Stefanov doesn’t belabor this notion at the expense of letting you walk a mile in both parties’ worn sandals. They let everything unfold organically and manage to balance the experiential aspects with the bigger-picture notions buzzing around the edges — a stunning example of form reflecting content. And along with their cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma, the countryside in which the subjects eke out a living manages to look sensuous and unforgiving in equal measures.
We eventually come to a reprise of that opening scene with Muratova, with the seasons changed from spring to winter. So much has changed. So much is now gone. And still she pulls back the stone, tending to her friends, taking only what she needs. Honeyland knows her future is uncertain. But it still gives her a moment in front of the camera with dignity and grace.