“Honeyland” is a fly-on-the-wall — or bee-on-the-wall — documentary chronicling an old and vanishing way of life. But it’s also a gut-punch of an environmental parable that seems like something out of “Aesop’s Fables,” about the destructive nature of greed.
Filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov spent three years in rural Macedonia filming their subject, a beekeeper named Hatidze Muratova. Living in a small hut with her ailing 85-year-old mother, Hatidze has spent her life on service to the simple rhythms of the bees.
In one stunning shot, the small, middle-aged woman confidently walks along the edge of a giant cliff, a verdant valley hundreds of feet below, to get to a hive hidden in a craggy rock. She extracts the bees and brings them home to her own hive. She treats the bees not as livestock but almost as partners. When it’s time to harvest the honey and sell it in town, she makes sure to leave exactly half behind for the bees.
She never gets stung. Bathed in golden light like she was a figure in a Rembrandt painting, Hatidze appears as an almost mythic figure, following a quiet, pastoral way of life that goes back centuries.
But that stillness is shattered by the rumble of a broken-down camper coming up the road. It’s a large family of nomads who have decided to set down roots on the abandoned farm next to Hatidze’s property. They bring with them cows and chickens. And the patriarch, Hussein, is very interested in beekeeping as well.
At first, Hatidze welcomes the company, playing with the kids and teaching Hussein what she knows about beekeeping. There’s a lovely scene in which Hatidze and the kids sing and dance to “You Are So Beautiful” piped in on a small portable radio.
But Hussein is as impatient and greedy and Hatidze is patient and giving. He’s sloppy and wasteful in his beekeeping, yelling at his kids for his own mistakes. He leaves a lot less than half of the honey in the hive for the bees.
Much like how an unscrupulous fisher might overfish a lake, leaving too little for other fishermen, Hussein’s greed and carelessness upsets the balance of nature in the little valley and threatens Hatidze’s own way of life. His actions, in contrasts to the honey-like hue around Hatidze, are filmed in a stark, pitiless white light.
The conflict between Hussein and Hatidze adds unexpected drama to what had been a pleasant, evocative documentary, and gives “Honeyland” a tragic undertone. In microcosm, the struggle between two neighbors represents a global struggle over how we use our natural resources, and the consequences of what happens if we choose short-term profits over long-term sustainability.
As sweet as the honey is in “Honeyland,” the feeling a viewer walks away with is bittersweet at best.