Honeylandopens with a gorgeous shot of a woman in traditional Eastern European garb making her way across a windswept rocky landscape. The camera follows her as she climbs up the mountainside, and then stops to pry loose a rock, which reveals a honeybee hive. Calmly, slowly, she reaches in and pulls out honeycombs and bees and puts them in a basket.
The woman is a traditional beekeeper in rural North Macedonia, a vanishing tradition.
Honeyland is a documentary but it plays out so much like a narrative film, a touching drama, perhaps even an epic, that one has to remind oneself that it is documentary. There is no introductory text at the start to tell us who she is or where we are, and there is no voice-over. Instead it is just the fly-on-the-wall camera, some strikingly beautiful photography, and a dramatic story that unfolds like a narrative film, with moments of drama, of humor, and an unspoken message about cultural change and caring for the earth.
The woman, Hatidze, lives in a small hut with her elderly mother, who is bed-ridden, blind in one eye and a little deaf, in what looks like it was once a small village. All the other stone houses are in ruin and they have only a dog and a couple of cats for company. Occasionally, the beekeeper travels to the nearby city of Skopje to sell her honey, where her traditionally garb, with a headscarf, high-neck blouse, skirt and heavy stockings, make her look like she stepped out of another time.
Yet the mother and daughter seem content, and the daughter’s good-heartedness and basic decency shine through. At first, it looks like the documentary will be about the quiet life.
But then neighbors arrive and the quiet changes to chaos. A couple move in across the street with lots of children, chickens, and a herd of cattle, which they don’t seem to know how to manage. The father, Hussein, may be well-meaning but he is clearly in over his head, and has a tendency to blame others around him for his mistakes, particularly the children. The beekeeper and her mother are wary at first but they speak the same Turkic language and they become neighborly, with Hatidze particularly enjoying playing with the children.
But the neighborly warmth doesn’t last, after Hussein decides to take up beekeeping but ignores Hatidze’s advice, endangering her bees as well as his.
Honeylandis a film that is beautifully filmed and has a moving human story and unforgettable people, as well as something important to say the value of traditional sustainable practices.