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Honeyland – documentary-making that’s the bee’s knees

12 September, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Hatidze tends to her bees without being stung

HONEYLAND
Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska
Certificate PG
☆☆☆☆☆

Half for you, half for me: a nice concept that lies at the heart of this lovely piece of film-making.

We meet Hatidze, a woman living in a isolated, empty village in Macedonia as she climbs into the mountains above her tumbledown home to find a bee colony nestled among rocks.

Hatidze gently removes a rock and takes herself a batch of honeycomb. The bees do not mind. Without gloves or netting, she farms their produce and isn’t stung.

This opening sequence introduces us to Hatidze and we then follow her as she tends to bees and looks after her bed-bound mother in a home whose only nod to the age of metal is a battered old stove whose belly is stocked up with firewood.

As we settle down into a gentle rhythm of Hatidze’s life, things are disturbed when a family appears with a truck
and a caravan and 100 head of cattle. Their appearance changes the complexion of Hatidze’s life.

The children are both help and hindrance, and create a maelstrom. Trying to make enough to feed seven hungry mouths means the father looks for a new income, and watching Hatidze’s ways with her bees decides to install hives. He ignores her advice – partly bullied by a man who wants to buy as much of the honey as possible – and the tension between human ways of exploiting the natural world and the effect of draining resources becomes a key twist in the film.

Honeyland has little dialogue and no narration – and it doesn’t need it. Scenes play out in dramatic ways but, above all, the pace of life comes over through the extraordinary shots the directors have chosen. It is a thing of beauty, a mesmerising, gentle, clever piece of cinematic art.

Many scenes would make beautiful still life paintings: shafts of light catch smoke rising, shadows fall into the pair’s hovel. This is a rural peasantry that it is easy to forget still exists in Europe. We are given a glimpse into a world so close to home – the village is just 20 kilometres from the city of Skopje – but feels like it has remained deep in the Middle Ages.

As well as the intriguing subject matter there are many questions you will ask as the story unfolds. For example, why is this half-ruined village so deserted and devoid of other life? Is it part of Macedonia ruined by the Balkan wars of the 90s? That such questions are not answered adds a layer of intrigue.

You might also wonder what the relationship is between the person behind the camera and the subject. Again, no answers are offered. But to gripe about this would be like asking what type of paint Picasso used and deciding you don’t like his work because of the process.

This is superb documentary-making. Producers Dogwoof were established in Camden in 2003 – based in a small office in a block in Leather Lane – and have a string of hits to their name, having been nominated for 21 Oscars. This film is one of their best.

In no small part this is because of the lead subject. Hatidze’s striking face echoes the craggy hills around her, her gappy-toothed smile the dry stone walls that mark out home. That she sings and chants at her bees as she takes honey from their hives, promising them “half for you, half for me” is no surprise: she is as much part of the landscape as the animals and the plants.

There is a parable deep within this film. As we rocket towards extinction, draining our planet dry, Hatidze has the answer: remember we are part of the bigger whole, that we must live in harmony, and that the age of exploitation is over.

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