Intimate and beautiful film blurs lines between documentary and drama
Hatidze Muratova, middle-age and single, is a beekeeper in rural Macedonia. She’s a hardy soul, wiry and tough, as vigorous as she is gentle. She’s the chief figure in Honeyland, an earthy little movie that’s often as direct and stoical and quietly mysterious as she is.
The story is simple enough on the face of it. Hatidze lives with her aged, ailing mother on a small, old and somewhat run-down farm. She supports both of them by selling the honey she gathers from hiking expeditions and from her own beekeeping. It’s a solitary and rather idyllic existence, until a family of itinerant herders moves onto the property next to hers.
That rather anarchic family bonds variously with Hatidze at first. Hussein Sam, the head of the family, gets curious about his new neighbor’s beekeeping business, while his wife and their several young sons scramble ineptly through their chores with a meager herd of livestock.
Inept or not, the Sams become rather heedless competitors in honey sales, and worse yet, they somehow attract some exploitative marketing attention from an urban wheeler-dealer. What shapes up at first as an obvious conflict of old and new soon rapidly evolves into something much more richly complex.
Honeyland has gained plaudits both as a documentary in story form and as a latter-day neo-realist drama with nonprofessional actors playing themselves in local settings. Co-directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov mix those elements in almost pointillist fashion. As a result, their film, which runs a quick 90 minutes, has no grand plot or documented message running through it. Instead, Honeyland generates a richly evocative kind of poetic power through its gathering of vividly observed moments in the daily lives of its characters and settings.
Thus, the movie has its share of human dramas—Hatidze and her half-blind, dying mother; the free-for-all that prevails with the Sams and their half-cracked brood of sons; Hatidze’s grandmotherly attachments to several of the Sams children; the “reasonable” son who sides with Hatidze in the nascent feud with his own family, etc.
But the special power of Honeyland also resides in the attention it pays to animals. Harshly beautiful landscapes with a solitary wanderer passing through are among the film’s recurring glories. A housecat maintaining its dignity amid the chaos of a cluttered kitchen can become the main reason for the camera to linger. There are shimmers of myth in fire in a Juniper tree, a torchlit incantation on a dark night, a cliffside quest for honey from a beehive in the rocks, hikers silhouetted against the sky with a vapor trail passing overhead.