Editor’s note: This review was originally published at 2019 New Directors/New Films. Neon releases the film on Friday, July 26.
There’s no evidence Albert Einstein actually said that “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.” The guy’s name may be synonymous with genius, but he was a theoretical physicist, not an entomologist — just because he was smart doesn’t mean that he could read a hive like a tarot card.
Of course, it’s easy to appreciate why that quote, however apocryphal, has always been attributed to him: Those words are endowed with the profound wisdom of someone who saw the world more clearly than the rest of us, and recognized the equations that maintained balance in the universe. They speak to the insect’s long history a symbol of stability and discipline (a history that stretches from the ancient Greeks to “The Happening”), and help to explain the low-grade hysteria that resulted from widespread reports of Colony Collapse Disorder in 2007. They also account for the urgency of Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s “Honeyland,” a bitter and mesmerically beautiful documentary that focuses on a single beekeeper as though our collective future hinges on the fragile relationship between she and her hives.
But Hatidze Muratova is no ordinary apiarist. In fact, she’s apparently the last of Macedonia’s nomadic beekeepers, although — like every other bit of context in this strictly observational film — that detail is never made explicit. It doesn’t need to be: The more time we spend watching Muratova stick her bare hands into natural stone nests and sing old folk songs to her buzzing swarms, the more obvious it becomes that she’s one-of-a-kind.
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Muratova is at once both older and younger than her 50 or so years first suggest. Her face is weathered and weepy, the skin on her nose appearing to bulb from the countless stings it has presumably endured during her time on the job (again, this is left to our imagination). On the other hand, Muratova flits around the arid countryside with the giddy effervescence of a child, and spars with her half-blind 86-year-old mother like a teenager (their bracingly intimate nighttime chats are shot with the disaffected honesty of a hidden camera, as the bedridden Nazife alternates between joking with her daughter and lamenting that she’s become a burden to her). Her life may appear to be simple, but she is not, and the film never condescends to her the way that well-intentioned documentaries often do to their rustic subjects.
Kotevska and Stefanov respect Muratova’s interiority, and don’t presume to know what she’s thinking. Their six-person crew lived on the lot beside her for three years, and some of the stray moments they captured — such as the one where Muratova sits inside the cold stone of her unelectrified hut and fusses over the exact color of her hair dye — hint at all the moments they never could. Even towards the end of the film, after you’ve stared at the green and yellow flowers on Muratova’s headscarf for so long that you could draw the floral pattern by memory, there’s still an unknown poetry in the way the cloth flaps in the wind. Even after the beekeeper has reached her breaking point and you know exactly what’s on her mind, there’s something shockingly direct about the way that she puts it into words. When Muratova curses the itinerant Turkish family who begin crowding her area (“May God burn their livers!”), it stings worse than anything they’ve felt before.
When Hussein Sam, his wife, and their seven kids drive into Muratova’s neck of the woods in the film’s opening minutes, they bring a powder-keg of a plot conflict along with them. At first, the beekeeper is happy enough for the company, even if the artful camerawork suggests that the outside disturbance runs deeper than Muratova would care to admit (Kotevska and Stefanov display a shrewd ability to see the undercurrents below a given scene, often using shallow focus to express how the Sam family has imbalanced a once-holistic environment). Muratova plays with the younger children, who buzz around the farm with much less purpose than any of her bees. She teaches the curious Hussein about her business, always stressing that she only takes half of the honey that’s produced by each hive, as that ensures the bees will survive and be able to produce more. That sustained harmony is more valuable to Muratova than the extra few Euro she could earn by taking every drop of honey; with her mom unable to walk, she needs to rely on these specific bees for the foreseeable future. They protect her, she protects them, and everyone in turn gets what they need to survive.
But Hussein Sam doesn’t have time for that. He’s got eight mouths to feed — nine including his own — and he’s just discovered a new way to turn a quick profit. Brusque and impatient, Hussein is poised to be the villain of this story, and his spats with Muratova only seem to cement that status. If only it were a simple matter of good vs. evil, perhaps this story would have a happier ending. Hussein is as responsible for his kids as Muratova is for her mother; he’s desperate to provide for them, even when they take his efforts for granted. “Greed” isn’t the right word for someone in such dire straits, but Hussein needs more than the bees can give him, and he needs it now.
The relatively modern tools Hussein uses to weigh honey only help to cement the film’s clear microcosm of the tension between sustainability and industrialization; between restraint and a catastrophic lack of foresight. In that sense, watching “Honeyland” is like looking at the greatest problems of our time through a pinhole, but the film sees the situation with a clarity that gets under your skin and breaks your heart. Far from a scolding, rub-your-nose-in-it depiction of environmental havoc, this is a tender story about the chaos of abandoning the common good. By reflecting Muratova’s relationship with her hives against the social contract that she’s formed with her mother — and that binds Hussein to his family — Kotevska and Stefanov shine a light on what the bees have always told us: They survive by serving each other. And if they ever disappeared completely, people would only have themselves to blame.
“Honeyland” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and then screened at New Directors/New Films. Neon will release it later this year.