The opening images of the documentary Honeyland instantly establish the film's visual strategy: It shows us a beautiful and expansive landscape, then zooms in on the people who occupy it, revealing just how inhospitable these places can be.
In a breathtaking wide shot, we see a speck of a woman, a shock of bright yellow against the green and brown of the Macedonian countryside. She moves deliberately through a clearing, then up a mountain and onto a narrow, precarious cliffside pathway. As we get closer to her, we watch as she kneels and chips away a chunk of rock, revealing a colony of bees buzzing away. She removes a chunk of the honeycomb and some of the bees, and climbs down again. She sings a ceremonial song to the insects for good measure. They're her livelihood.
We soon learn that the woman is named Hatidze. She lives outside the city of Skopje in a stone hut with her elderly mother, who is going deaf and can only see out of one eye. Hatidze keeps a small bee colony inside a stone wall on her property, and she occasionally heads into the city to sell her honey to the vendors at a bustling marketplace. A preternatural calm radiates from her, particularly when she's handling the bees. She doesn't even wear protective gloves, as if she trusts them not to sting her.
The same sense of serenity does not apply to Hatidze's next door neighbors, the nomadic Sam family, nine people crammed inside a roving camper. They're raising cattle — and not particularly well, it seems — but the father, Hussein, soon decides to start keeping bees himself. This negatively affects Hatidze's own operation, as her bees start to die. "May God burn their livers!" her mother warbles from her bed in the corner.
Honeyland is more immersive and experiential than informative or polemical; there's no narration, no talking head interviews, no on-screen chyrons telling us who's who and how they're related to one another. If you're seeking information about the beekeeping process, look elsewhere. Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov instead let us figure out the details ourselves, allowing narrative threads to slowly emerge from seemingly disconnected images.
There are scenes so packed with detail that they feel pulled from a scripted feature. The family crowded around a transistor radio, desperately trying to hear the weather report. A sketchy merchant from the city haggling with Hussein for a cut of his honey. One of Hussein's sons growing steadily disenchanted with the process of harvesting honey, only to find a friend in the more resolute Hatidze. The cattle succumbing to an unknown sickness, and Hussein pointing fingers at everyone but himself.
All of this is lovingly shot by Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma; this is the rare documentary that could conceivably score an Oscar nomination for its cinematography. Drones elegantly reveal the sweep of the land, handheld camerawork mires us in the muck of the cattle operation, up-close photography lets us see the bees at work, and unbroken static shots create stark tableaux.
Some moments are so gorgeously staged and framed, in fact, that I had to wonder how spontaneous they could possibly be; others are intimate in a way that sometimes made me feel as if I was encroaching on things I wasn't meant to see. I'm left, then, with questions about the methods behind the filmmaking — how the directors found these people, how hands-off they really were in their approach, how the subjects themselves felt about a camera crew prying into their distinctly analog lifestyle and capturing them at their most vulnerable.
And yet there's a visual lyricism to Honeyland that pulled me in, and Hatidze has one of those faces, stoic and weathered and full of wisdom, I won't soon forget. It's a document of a gorgeous but unforgiving place, of people who either resist its harshness or adapt to it, and of a land that can take away just as much as it can give. ♦