‘Honeyland’ offers heartbreaking life story and harrowing warning

Posted 9/18/19

I’ve long since grown accustomed to nature-centered documentaries issuing stern warnings about the dangerous direction in which humanity’s development is taking the environment.

So when I sat down to watch “Honeyland,” an intimate profile of an isolated honey harvester in the rural Balkans, I was fully expecting to be confronted with further evidence of the worldwide decline in honey bee populations.

What I wasn’t prepared for was to witness the complete and systematic destruction of every aspect of this poor woman’s life and livelihood, offered up onscreen without any comment.

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‘Honeyland’ offers heartbreaking life story and harrowing warning

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I’ve long since grown accustomed to nature-centered documentaries issuing stern warnings about the dangerous direction in which humanity’s development is taking the environment.

So when I sat down to watch “Honeyland,” an intimate profile of an isolated honey harvester in the rural Balkans, I was fully expecting to be confronted with further evidence of the worldwide decline in honey bee populations.

What I wasn’t prepared for was to witness the complete and systematic destruction of every aspect of this poor woman’s life and livelihood, offered up onscreen without any comment.

Because while “Honeyland” serves up astonishingly rich and sweeping cinematography, there are no voiceover narrations, and aside from the opening and closing scenes of the film, as close as this film comes to mood-setting background music are the static-riddled pop songs that play over handheld radios.

Hatidze Muratova scales the sides of mountains with a practiced sure-footedness to collect the honeycomb of remote hives, and add part of their populations to the bees she’s keeping at her home.

Even when viewed charitably, her life has no shortage of hardship, especially since she’s living in the otherwise empty ruins of a former farming village, without roads, electricity or running water, and she’s caring for her half-blind, bedridden, 85-year-old mother, Nazife.

But Hatidze at least seems content, appreciating the stark but strikingly beautiful wilderness that surrounds her, and selling just enough raw honey in the closest city, only a leisurely four-hour walk away, to indulge in relative luxuries such as hair dye and an ornate hand-fan, the latter to wave away the flies from her mother’s face.

Macedonian directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov make excellent use of drone camera footage to convey the scarcity of resources in the Macedonian countryside that Hatidze inhabits, which makes the inherited wisdom of her traditional honey-harvesting practices all the more essential.

Hatidze assiduously adheres to the restriction of never removing more than half the honeycomb from a hive, so that the bees can replenish their reserves fairly quickly.

All this changes when a nomadic, trailer-dwelling family arrives in the area, to become her new neighbors.

Hussein Sam has a pregnant wife and seven young children to provide for, which drives him to disregard Hatidze’s warnings about not over-harvesting his own beehives.

Watching Hussein’s short-sighted, profit-minded cannibalization of the finite resources in the area, and how it ultimately seals the fate of Hatidze’s bees as well, is like watching a tragic microcosm of the human race’s heedless exploitation of nature.

If this film were fiction, even politically liberal critics would likely dismiss it as unrealistically one-sided and heavy-handed in its conservationist commentary, which is why it’s all the more harrowing for having actually happened.

There are notes of optimism, such as when Hussein’s curious eldest son, Mustafa, accompanies Hatidze on her honey harvesting excursions, and even repeats her warnings to his father.

But Hussein refuses to listen, and by the end, just as he’s lain waste to the already fragile ecosystem, so too has he reduced his own family to a squabbling, squalid gang, who throw blame and obscenities at each other for their shared misfortunes.

The film ends on a final hint of hope, but it’s also clear that Hatidze will never fully recover all that we’ve watched her lose.

“Honeyland” is a vital film to see at least once, not in the least for the compelling, unique character of Hatidze herself, but I won’t blame anyone who declines to watch it a second time.

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