Winning three awards at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and entered as North Macedonia’s official entry for the Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Film) in the upcoming 92nd Academy Awards, Honeyland has been on the radar of many cinephiles this year as it has slowly made its way into theaters across the country. To my pleasure, it finally arrived in Salt Lake City in August, but I couldn’t anticipate the exciting ride I was buckling in for.
Honeyland is the story, and struggle, of Hatidze, a beekeeper in a remote part of Macedonia who follows tradition and practices responsible stewardship of the environment around her. Hatidze, now in her mid-50s, cares for her ill mother and harvests honey to bring in money for both of them to survive and eat. Having never married or had children, she is alone in this venture as she tries to do what’s right.
Soon, however, new neighbors settle down right next to where Hatidze and her mother had been living all these years. A film that started out as peaceful, and even tranquil, as we first got to know the mother-daughter duo, has now been disrupted by a loud and assuming family. This presents a dramatic change in tone as the family comes in with their cows, chickens, and children. This immediately feels like an invasion of territory, and you feel bad for Hatidze and the dilemma she is being put in.
What ensues is this family’s own struggle to survive and support themselves, and the patriarch is continuously finding ways to make money. When what he’s doing proves to not be enough, he takes an interest in Hatidze’s beekeeping, and she teaches him her ways. Unfortunately, he doesn’t express the same care and attention to her methods, and he will threaten everything Hatidze has worked for.
Honeyland is beautiful, and there are many moments throughout the film that make you question whether it’s actually a documentary. Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska take a more cinematic approach in their directing. Hatidze, her mother, and neighbors never acknowledge the camera, and they’re not explaining their thoughts to anybody offscreen. Everything we see is what these people are experiencing in their lives.
The cinematography, too, is what you’d expect with a feature film, as opposed to a traditional documentary. There are regular pans over the desolate landscape, climbs up the rocky cliff face above Hatidze’s home, and extended shots in the dark of night lit up only by campfire or furnace.
Hatidze is presented as being harsh at times, particularly in some interactions with her mother, but she inevitably comes off as somebody who enjoys life, is humorous, and is kind.
While not as explicit in its message, Honeyland touches on the same ideas as expressed in another documentary that came out in theaters earlier this year, The Biggest Little Farm. There’s a balance in nature, and it’s incumbent on us to maintain that balance, to not abuse its resources, and to responsibly cultivate the environment around us so it can not only survive but flourish. Honeyland and The Biggest Little Farm, while the two films are very different, are a complementary pairing.
If you have the opportunity to watch Honeyland in a theater, take it. Just shy of ninety minutes long, there’s a lot that is packed into this story, and you’ll leave the theater having a newfound appreciation for strong individuals like Hatdize.