Honeyland: Doc about a bee-keeping Macedonian peasant achieves real-life fable status

By Liam Lacey

Rating: A

“Documentary” doesn’t feel like the right word for Honeyland, a film about a middle-aged Macedonian peasant woman named Hatidze Muratova, the livelihood she ekes out by harvesting wild honey, and her troubles with her neighbours. 

While the characters and events are real, the artful design of this film and its allegorical resonances seem to put Honeyland in its own genre – that of a real-life fable.

Hatidze Muratova tends to her bees in Honeyland

Hatidze Muratova tends to her bees in Honeyland

Filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov spent three years living next to Hatidze, following her with a six-person crew up mountain paths to pluck wild honey combs from between rocks, or watching her spoon-feed and care for her elderly bed-ridden mother, Nazife. And they discovered a theme worthy of a Biblical parable. 

Hatidze makes a living from harvesting wild honey. She is, purportedly, the last person in Europe to do so in a traditional fashion. She sells the produce at 10 Euros a jar in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. This gives her enough to buy food staples, some bananas for her mother and some chestnut hair dye for herself -- even though her hair is always hidden by a scarf.

When Hatidze takes the honey from the swarming bees, she uses a smoke-producing kettle and a few deft movements (the practiced economy of these movements makes it look like a ritual dance). When she divides a colony, and moves some bees to a new location, she sings to them to welcome them to their new home.

Then, chaos enters into her mountain idyll: A Turkish nomadic farmer, Hussein Sam and his wife, Ljutvie, arrive in a recreational vehicle, with seven children, chickens, a portable radio and dozens of cattle. All of them are very noisy. The children chase and harass the cows. The cows kick at the children. A cow wanders onto Hatidze’s property and she shoos it away.

Listening to the squall of the neighbour’s kids, Nazife mutters, “May their livers burn.”

Hatidze is more forbearing – or maybe just more lonely. Hatidze plays and dances with the young children. When Hussein wants to know about the honey gathering business, she’s helpful, explaining her “take half, leave half” approach, so the bees have enough to survive. But Hussei is an appallingly bad farmer (his poor cows, who he leaves to the children to tend, start dying from neglect). Ad he needs to make some fast money. The consequences have a ripple effect on the entire local bee ecosystem. 

Simple extrapolation bodes badly for living things on this planet, and while Honeyland is alarming, it’s not depressing, leaving an intense sensory impression. 

The camerawork from Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma celebrates a diversity worth treasuring: Overhead shots make the mountainous Balkan landscape look like modern abstract art, while micro-level images of a wet bee struggling on a leaf to candle-lit interiors suggests a 17th Century Dutch oil painting. The film is both a warning and a celebration. 

Honeyland. Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotesvska. With Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam and Ljutvie Sam. Honeyland can be seen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.