Honeyland follows Hatidze Muratova, a beekeeper in remote North Macedonia, as she manages to scrape together a modest living doing hard, physically-demanding work while taking care of her ailing mother. Though she is over 50 years old and every one of those years is etched on her face, she is far from some decrepit figure. Hatidze has the energy of a teenager as she regularly climbs up steep and rocky terrain to care for her bees and harvest modest amounts of honey. She is also a warm and garrulous person, happily chatting up shopkeepers and keeping her mother company. Later, Hatidze takes a shining to the Sam family and their many children. Not only does she look after the children, but she even helps out Hussein Sam, the patriarch of the family, when he decides to try his hand at beekeeping. But when the Sam family overextends their resources and end up inadvertently threatening Hatdize’s livelihood, the once harmonious relationship between the two is endangered.
Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov spent nearly three years in a remote rural area of Macedonia to make Honeyland. They chose Hatidze almost by accident considering her brothers were also beekeepers, but because Hatidze was the only daughter, she was left behind to take care of her ailing mother. Kotevska & Stefanov captured nearly 400 hours of footage while living in tents in what is essentially Hatidze’s backyard and only leaving for short periods of time to resupply over the course of three years.
Since neither director understood Turkish, which both Hatidze and the Sam family speak, the directors claimed in a Q & A that the first cut they put together was purely visual, which definitely is evident in the way that Hatidze’s modest home is shrouded in inky darkness and illuminated with natural light, giving those scenes with her and her mother an almost unearthly air along the lines of Pedro Costa’s famous mise en scènes in which darkness has both aesthetic and thematic value. There are also many shots of the wild beauty of the Macedonian countryside; perhaps the most striking is the first shot in which multiple cameras (one of which is possibly a drone) follow Hatidze as she climbs up the narrowest of paths to get to her secret hive.
After the visual cut was put together, the filmmakers essentially developed the other half of the story when they finally decided to translate in earnest. It is easier to believe the smaller moments of this film, such as when Hatidze is trying out a new hair dye and in seeing how she cares about how she looks. It is less believable when the narrative becomes about Hatidze, the beekeeper who leads a sustainable lifestyle, and her conflict with the Sam family, who exploit their environment for their own selfish gain. Documentaries often have very subjective notions of truth, and while this narrative of what is essentially capitalism gone amok is tempting, it’s not entirely convincing.
The depiction of the Sam family as the villains of the narrative is the most dubious part of this strategy, but the filmmakers do address the difficulty of the family’s position constantly. There are many scenes of the family trying to scrape together a living in the hardest of circumstances. Their cattle are afflicted with an illness that proves fatal for many of them, and a demanding client of theirs puts in an order of 200 kilos of honey that is far beyond their current capacity, causing them to take many shortcuts that causes the eventual rift between Hatidze and the Sam family. In the meantime, the children get kicked by cows, stung by bees and injured by vigorous horseplay. Though their actions are devastating to the environment around them, we as viewers understand that they are simply trying to survive and how difficult that is under these circumstances.
Despite the documentary potentially settling into too neat a narrative, Honeyland reaches what Werner Herzog calls the ecstatic truth. A simple recounting of what happened to Hatidze would not just be uninteresting, it would be “superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” It should be seen in the same light as Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, which is apparently fiction, even though so many of the actors within the film essentially play versions of themselves and the basic plot of The Rider is based on real life. It is a fine line that the creative minds of Honeyland walk between fictionalization and reportage, yet ultimately the film is still engrossing and entirely affecting, especially as we see that despite her struggles, Hatidze still perseveres.