Friday, January 24, 2020

Movie Review: Honeyland

Honeyland **** / *****
Directed by: Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov.
Honeyland opens with one of the most breathtaking and beautiful sequences of the year. Hatidze, who lives in rural Macedonia, climbs a large, rocky mountain slowly, going down narrow paths and steep passages, and then stops in front of some rocks, chips away at them, and finds what she is looking for – a thriving hive of wild bees. She takes the bees, and transports them back to her home – where she’ll seal them in a very similar setup they had in the wild. She is a wild beekeeper – the last of her kind – and she is able to keep up this delicate balance because she is the only one around, and because she follows a simple rule – she takes half the honey, and leaves the other half for the bees who made it. She gets the money from selling their honey, and they get to stay happy and fed. And then, the neighbors move in.
Honeyland is a documentary that simply sits back and observes Hatidze, and eventually the neighbors, as their conflict slowly grows. Hatidze has been here for years, all by herself except for her mother – now in her mid-80s, and stuck in bed for years. She seems relatively happy in her isolated life – either going about her busy, or taking the hours long walk into the city to sell her honey, and buy what they need to survive. She views the neighbors suspiciously when they arrive – but ultimately does want to be friends with them. She bonds with the kids, and at first the parents. But then the father starts his own honey business – with honey from breeders. Hatidze tells him to stick by her rule – take half the honey, and leave the other half. This isn’t just good for him, but vital for her – if his bees lose all of their honey, they will attack her bees to take theirs. He, of course, doesn’t listen.
This is a beautiful film – that opening sequence is breathtaking, but the entire film looks gorgeous – directors Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov and their cinematographers seem to have taken some lessons from Terrence Malick about the best time of day to shoot and much of the film has a beautiful, golden hue to it. They also smartly start their film with these very quiet sequences – so when the large, boisterous family eventually does come, it sounds deafening to those of us in the audience.
Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov don’t interfere with anything – we don’t even hear them ask any questions of Hatidze, although they get some answers out of her that show some regrets – like when she talks about not having a son to one of the neighbor’s kids, or complains to her mother that she didn’t agree to marry her off when she had matchmakers around all those years ago. They also don’t interfere in other instances – ones that may make you squirm – as the bees get riled up and sting – not just the adults in the film, but also the children, who we see swollen at points.
But ultimately, Honeyland is a movie about the changing times – the conflict inherent in capitalism, and the way people use and abuse finite resources until no one has anything left. It’s also a portrait of a dying way of life – a way you may not even be aware existed in the first place. And it’s all wrapped up in a beautiful and stunning package. This is one of the year’s best documentaries.

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