Honeyland is the story of one woman, but it contains within it the stories of thousands of people from many different places. It is a parable, it is real life; sometimes it feels almost too real to be shown on a big screen in a cinema.
The documentary by Macedonian filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov was originally intended as a short film about the central region of Macedonia. But then the directors met Hatidže Muratova, a wild beekeeper living in the remote, mountainous region of Bekirlija in North Macedonia with her bedridden mother. The village has no signal, no paved roads, no electricity or running water and is a four-hour commute away from the nearest city. Muratova only agreed to be filmed because she has been trying to gather support for the ecosystem in her area for years.
The first part of the film is slow and meditative, showing Muratova at work in peaceful balance with the habitat around her - she takes half of what the bees produce and appears to have an intimate, understanding relationship with them. It is beautiful and astonishing to see this seamless rhythm: every day spent working with, and in a way, married to nature. Muratova supports herself and her mother by selling wild honey harvested from high-up cracks in the mountain rock, which she sells in Skopje, a town a day’s journey away: she is one of the last people in her country, even the world, who harvest like this.
It is beautiful and astonishing to see this seamless rhythm: every day spent working with, and in a way, married to nature.
The perspective of Muratova is, for many of us, unlike anything we have ever seen or felt. She spends her days taking in and connecting with the outside and the elements, because she must to survive. She owns a small radio, which seems almost like a sacred object because of its singularity, and when she makes the trip to the city, suddenly the excess seems strange and alien, because we see it through her eyes: stingy merchants, people rushing past each other without looking around - so much noise and so little connection. Being able to view Muratova’s lifestyle drew my attention to its difference to my own, spending most of my time inside, mind or body, but rarely looking outside in the way that Muratova does for both sustenance and balance. The life led by Muratova is neither simple nor primitive but exists on a plane that is difficult to compare to the lifestyles much of the World is now accustomed to, and so is often dismissed as having less value.
Being able to view Muratova’s lifestyle drew my attention to its difference to my own, spending most of my time inside, mind or body, but rarely looking outside in the way that Muratova does for both sustenance and balance.
The film footage is strictly observational, unnarrated and often silent, which makes the story that unfolds even more powerful. A key shift in the film occurs when a family of nomads arrives in the village. They settle down and run a ranch in the middle of what used to be Muratova’s quiet valley. The break in the calm and solitary atmosphere is palpable, particularly because of the success earlier in the film of portraying the energy of the environments with attention to detail and beautiful intensity. When the father of the nomad family begins to keep bees alongside Muratova’s colony, we witness a tense conversation between him and a rich customer, who convinces him to harvest more for more money, causing his bees to attack Muratova’s in order to survive. Both colonies are on the verge of collapsing. The effect that one individual can have on an entire ecosystem becomes hauntingly clear.
The effect that one individual can have on an entire ecosystem becomes hauntingly clear.
Honeyland was the most awarded film at Sundance last year and received two Oscar nominations. Its magic is that it manages to let us live like Muratova does, and thus creates, at least temporarily, a sense of affection not just for the bees, but also their ecosystem, and attaches us to the delicate balance of nature as a whole. The shock at the disrespect and disregard shown by the intruders is so dramatic because we are put in the position of those who suffer the consequences. The position most of us occupy in our lives is not as simple: we are often part-complacent, part-victim and part-responsible when it comes to the destruction of nature. This is much harder to untangle and results in more grey-area values attached to things such as animal exploitation, overuse of natural resources and capitalist greed. Everything in Muratova’s world seems fragile, yet unquestionably right and balanced. Being put in a position where we are as directly dependent on ecological balance as the animals and plants around us makes our role much more clear-cut. It induces a powerful shift of perspective.
We are often part-complacent, part-victim and part-responsible when it comes to the destruction of nature.
Muratova’s story has affected me more than most things I have seen in a cinema. When I walked outside after seeing it, everything suddenly seemed very different to me - or rather, nothing had changed but I had found a new kind of clarity. I found myself sitting in a park after the showing and watching everyone around me with the same observational eyes. After all, despite her powerful story, Hatidže Muratova is just another person living in the World. After spending some time touring the world’s film festivals, she has returned home to her usual rhythm. She crosses rivers, climbs up the mountain to get telephone signal to call her nephew if she needs bread, she composes and sings folkloric songs, she rises and communes with animals around her, and the only medicine she uses is honey. Her neighbours, on her advice, now harvest like she does, and her colony is still alive. She says she misses the hustle and bustle of the film crew, but she is still at home in her village of one, crossing the rivers and climbing the hills: “Day in, day out, summer and winter, I am used to it” is her smiling response when people worry that the river might take her away.
“The right thing to do” was never an option, but always a basic necessity.
Stories like this one have the potential to create change in so many ways, because rather than acting as an instruction manual to revolution, they present the perspective of people for whom “the right thing to do” was never an option, but always a basic necessity. It removes the grey areas we have become so accustomed to and shakes us of all the complicity we have stored up over time - even if just for the duration of the film. It invites us to recognise this attitude wherever we can, and to look to people like Muratova, who present (often non-Western) cultural and personal practices that connect humanity to the earth. The film demonstrates our endless ability to learn, change and adapt to our environments, crucial skills to be aware we possess in the current climate.
Written by Louder Than The Storm writer Ada Gunther