Honeyland is a deceptively sweet title for a documentary about a lonely life spent in a harsh, barren landscape. The place is the Republic of North Macedonia, known simply as “Macedonia” until last year when the name was changed to resolve a long-running dispute with the Greeks.
The newly minted Republic is a land-locked country bordered by Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece. It’s a region in which many different ethic groups cohabit and a babble of languages is spoken. Its history is as long and as chequered as any place in Europe, but since separating from Yugoslavia in 1991, the state has become a parliamentary democracy with a rapidly growing economy.
None of this seems especially relevant when we meet Hatidze Muratova, a sun-browned peasant woman with a headscarf. We watch as she makes her way through a dry, flat wasteland, ascends a craggy hill and prises a piece of stone from a cliff face, revealing layers of honeycomb buzzing with bees. With her bare hands she removes the honeycomb, speaking to the bees as she would to friends. She takes her finds back to a broken-down encampment that was once the village of Bekirlija.
Hatidze, in her mid-50s, shares a rudimentary shack with her 85-year-old mother, Nazife. There is no electricity or running water. It’s hot and dusty in summer and freezing in winter. The old woman is an invalid, one side of her face disfigured by some kind of bloody infection. Hardly able to move she is completely dependent on her daughter.
Hatidze scrapes an income from the honey she sells at the market in Skopje. It’s a surprise to learn the village is less than 20 kilometres from the capital because it gives the impression of being located in a wilderness as vast as the one that detained the Israelites for 40 years. It seems a thankless existence, but Hatidze stays busy with her bees and her chores. We don’t need to be told this is the only life she has ever known.
One day, without warning, a man named Hussein arrives with his wife and seven children. They are going to settle in the village, raise cattle and tend bees. The kids are a wild bunch, Hussein is peevish and cranky, but Hatidze reaches out to the new neighbours. Instead of seeing them as a threat she seems to enjoy the noise and the company. She befriends one of the boys and instructs him on the finer points of bee-keeping. The golden rule is: “Half for me and half for you”, leaving enough to maintainthe hive. To her it’s a sacred contract, although the bees might complain they had little room for negotiation.
Little by little we watch the failure of Hussein’s farming venture, as he stands revealed as a complete amateur. Most disturbingly he enters into an agreement to supply honey that he cannot service, being pushed to take more and more from the hives. This prompts his bees to spread out and attack Hatidze’s hive. All her careful work, all the experience of a life-time is being destroyed by Hussein’s desperation and negligence.
In such an isolated village this small-time tragedy is a major catastrophe. The story becomes a fable in which the sustainable practices of a woman at one with her environment are upset by the intrusion of a clumsy interloper eager to wring a living from the land. Hussein is not malicious, merely incompetent. His pride cannot bear the spectacle of his own mistakes, or the resentful, rebellious comments of his wife and sons. While his ego is being bruised, the fragile economy that Hatidze has established is being swept away.
The film acts as an allegory for the way peasant farmers all over the world have seen their lands swallowed up by newcomers looking for short-term profit. For the most part these are not wannabee agriculturalists like Hussein, but large corporations. Exploitation takes precedence over sustainability, leaving the land despoiled and resources exhausted.
First-time fillmmakers, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov spent three years filming Honeyland, which explains the lack of self-consciousness displayed by Hatidze and the other characters. The camera and microphone have become parts of everyday life that go seemingly unnoticed. The viewer’s relationship with Hatidze and her mother is so close we are allowed to eavesdrop on their conversations.
We learn that Hatidze’s late father sent the matchmaker away when he came around many years ago, most probably condemning his daughter to a life of domestic drudgery. No longer young, worn and homely, she appears to have little chance of ever escaping the village, even when she is the sole remaining inhabitant. She retains enough vanity to dye her hair, and fiddles with a radio trying to improve the reception of a music station on which we keep hearing Joe Cocker growling: “You are so beautiful…”
It’s impossible to watch Honeyland and not wonder what becomes of Hatidze when the camera goes away. It also prompts reflection on the importance of small things for those who don’t live in the big cities or the wealthier countries.
The surprising outcome of this documentary is that its success allowed the filmmakers to buy Hatidze a house in another village where she has relatives, although she still returns to collect honey in Bekirlija. She also got to travel to Hollywood this year when the film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Documentary and Best International Film. Honeyland didn’t win an Oscar but it has gathered enough film festival prizes to fill a trophy cabinet.
It may seem strange that a documentary about a Macedonian peasant woman has captured the imagination of audiences around the world. I couldn’t help thinking of John Berger’s rapturous accounts of peasant life in the Haute-Savoie – in which the cosmopolitan writer celebrates the feeling of living in harmony with nature and the seasons. For city-dwellers there’s a vicarious satisfaction in contemplating such lives, even when they consist of endless toil and poverty. In Hatidze’s case the wild honey adds a magical element. A versatile nutrient with healing properties, a symbol of prosperity, health and immortality, honey is beloved of every culture. Hatidze may be poor and lonely, but as Queen Bee of the village she is a high priestess of nature.
Directed by Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomr Stefanov
Starring Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam
Republic of North Macedonia, rated G, 89 mins
Streaming on iwonder.com
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 13 June, 2020