Like many a good documentary, Honeyland takes us to a faraway land and culture in a way that reveals what is distinctive and what is universal about people.
One of the differences: the language parents in rural Macedonia choose to express displeasure at a misbehaving child.
“May your head fall off,” says a mother, watching one of her sons inflict minor injury on his sister during an informal wrestling match.
In fact, medieval curses that start with the word “may” are used effectively throughout.
“May God burn their livers,” says a woman, complaining about intrusive neighbors.
May all lovers of documentary scurry out to see Honeyland, the story of Hatidze Muratova, a beekeeper (or more accurately a partner with wild bees) contending with an incursion of newcomers who disrupt her relationship with the natural world and the insects that sustain her.
Honeyland, in fact, is so nicely color-schemed, artfully composed, and adroitly told that it seems almost impossible that the filmmakers, Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, just happened to capture it all on camera.
But apparently that’s the case. Stefanov and Kotevska spent three years in this rocky and remote corner of Macedonia, 20 miles from anywhere, embedding with Hatidze, and becoming such an unobtrusive part of her life that we are there with her each night as she lights a lamp and cares for her ailing, aged mother.
Here we encounter one of those universal moments, this one between I’m-a-burden mother and caregiving daughter.
“I’m not dying,” mom says to Hatidze. “ I’m making your life miserable.”
Hatidze understands all that is being expressed, and manages a laugh, and so do we. More troubling is the conflict that arises when a family of Turkish migrants moves in next door — mom, dad, a gaggle of kids, and herd of cattle.
The contrast between Hatidze, working cooperatively with nature, and the habits of her new neighbors is stark and pointed — we see uncooperative animals swatted, pelted with rocks, dragged by ropes.
Family patriarch Hussein raises cattle for the money he needs to feed his large (and mostly unappreciative) family, and takes a keen interest in Hatidze’s business of harvesting raw honey and selling it at local markets. Soon he’s building his own hives, hoping to achieve even greater profit through scale.
But he misses important subtleties. Hatidze has a saying when she takes honey from a hive — half for you, she tells the bees, half for me. This isn’t just a philosophy. It’s sound strategy. Take too much, and the bees get angry, and start to invade other hives and attack other colonies.
Hussein’s ambitions and methods endanger both enterprises, and what unfolds is a timely parable about working with nature, and trying to industrialize what nature provides. Here, the implications of the title are felt.
A land of milk and honey, a land of bulk and money.
You can’t always have both.
Honeyland. Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska. With Hatidze Muratova. Distributed by Neon.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 mins.
Parents’ guide: Not rated.