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  • Kate Marsh

Honeyland: a tale of sustainability from Europe’s last wild bee-keeper

Updated: May 24, 2021

An accomplished and heartfelt documentary exploring a lost way of life and the impact of the modern world on our environment

Since being released, Honeyland has received its fair share of attention from the who’s who of the film world; taking home three awards at Sundance Film Festival and becoming the first documentary in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for both ‘Best Documentary Feature’ and ‘Best International Feature Film’.

I am often sceptical of films which have achieved such prestigious accolades. In the past, I have found films praised by such institutions to be pretentious and frankly uninteresting. However, this is not the case with Honeyland, a documentary which explores the conflict between traditional methods of bee-keeping and the greed of the modern day money machine. After watching the captivating, sensitive portrayal of Hatdize, Europe’s last wild beekeeper, I can genuinely say that all of the praise Honeyland has received is thoroughly deserved.

True to form, Honeyland stems from an organic, unconventional beginning. Originally, the directors planned on making a short nature documentary in Northern Macedonia. However, after learning about Hatidze from their time spent in the local area, this plan soon developed into a three year stay documenting Hatdidze’s unique way of life and her interaction with those who threaten it.

"The only way to make a real documentary is to feel the lives that these people are living"

Despite its ad-hoc origins, Honeyland has a strong sense of narrative direction, which is remarkable considering that the documentary is filmed without commentary - testifying to the power of Honeyland’s visual storytelling.

The strong visual focus stems from a language barrier between the documentary’s subjects and crew, forcing communication to be predominantly visual in the filming and editing process (the film was initially edited on mute with dialogue subsequently translated and added in).

The symbiosis between how the documentary is filmed and what we see on screen adds a further layer of authenticity to the project whilst the detraction from linguistic communication gives Honeyland a universal, humanising appeal; reflective of the director’s ethos that "the only way to make a real documentary is to feel the lives that these people are living".

The lack of narration forces the viewer to pay closer attention to imagery, body language and the sounds of nature; allowing us to immerse more fully into Honeyland by sensorily participating in Hatidize’s life rather than experiencing it through the removed voice of a narrator.

I was captivated by Hatidze from her opening scene, depicting her lone pilgrimage to find a wild hive against the dramatic mountainous landscape. Hatidze has a presence that casting agents can only dream of and her natural chemistry with the bees is evident from the off. She handles the bees without fear or armour, transferring the bees with her bare hands to her woven basket, which she proceeds to strap on her back and walk back down the mountain with.

Considering that the media usually depicts bee-keeping as a dangerous activity, with no sensible bee-keeper seen without a white biohazard suit and a smoking gun, this harmonious and trusting relationship between Hatidze and the hive is an extraordinary thing to watch.

Hatidze sees no distinction between her work and the work of the hive, sharing profits by taking only half of the honey and leaving the rest so that the bees can sustain themselves through the winter.

In the scene that follows, Hatidze feeds her incapacitated mother honeycomb, revealing an interesting parallel between Hatidze and the bees she cares for. It is because Hatidze is also a worker bee, looking after a queen who cannot leave the hive, that she can operate in such harmony with the creatures she works alongside.

Although Hatidze could be interpreted as a transcendent figure due to her separation from modern society and spiritual interrelation with the bees, when we do see her interact with others she becomes accessible to the viewer as a warm and open-hearted woman.

Scenes of Hatidze bickering with her mother, sitting on a bus clad in traditional clothing next to a man with a bright blue mohican, and dying her hair with a Garnier box dye in a house that has no electricity or running water, are both humorous and touching.

She even extends this warmth to her neighbours, the source of conflict in the documentary, freely offering advice on bee-keeping and cultivating a playful relationship with the family’s children. However, despite Hatidze being a surprisingly approachable figure, in spite of her isolated lifestyle, the neighbouring family fail to take advantage of the wisdom Hatidze has to offer, instead taking advantage of the nature they seek to profit from.

Our introduction to Hussein’s family could not differ more from our introduction to Hatidze. Peace is unceremoniously interrupted from the moment of their arrival, replaced by the cacophonous sounds of cows, screaming children and heavy machinery. In contrast to Hatidze’s intrinsic understanding of the animals she works alongside, the nomadic farmers treat their livestock in an ignorant, unproductive manner.

It is clear that Hussein’s interest in nature is not a way of life, as it is for Hatidze, but a way of securing as much profit as possible. After learning about Hatidze’s unique way of cultivating honey, Hussein soon tries to imitate her art in an attempt to ‘get rich quick’. Although initially supported by Hatidze, their relationship soon sours as Hussein ignores her cardinal rule to ‘take half, leave half’ in order to maximise the amount of honey (and money) he can extract from each hive.

This one decision sparks the central conflict of the documentary, as its destructive consequences wreak havoc on the balance of nature Hatidze stewards over. The conflict breeds more conflict as Hussein’s children, after absorbing the advice from Hatidze, futilely argue with their father. Even the bees themselves take part in the conflict, as Husein’s bees are forced to steal honey from Hatidze’s hive due to the depletion of their own resources - killing her bees in the process.

Although Hussein’s actions cannot be overlooked as ignorance since he deliberately ignores Hatidze’s advice, it is his unnamed overseer who appears most villainous, pushing Hussein to reluctantly collect more honey. The image of this middleman brutally cutting into the hive’s honeycomb and engorging himself on its nectar, with complete disregard for the means of its production, is the most powerful and infuriating scene in the entire documentary - serving as a representation of capitalist greed.

The series of events caused by Husein’s greed and ignorance trigger a spiritual crisis for Hatidze as she is slowly bereaved of all she holds dear. The loss of her bees is followed by the death of her beloved mother and the departure of her only source of human company, as the neighbouring family must move on after their repetitive ignorance causes their cowherd to fall ill - strangely answering Hatidze’s mother’s prophetic claim that "god will punish them" for their mistreatment of the bees.

Hatidze becomes a lone figure in the depth of winter, trying to keep warm in the candlelight of her remote home. Although the sadness experienced towards the end of the documentary is not necessarily resolved, the concluding scene of Hatidze’s annual pilgrimage to find a wild hive in the mountains does give the viewer an emerging sense of hope.

In this return to origins, the arc of the narrative imitates the sustaining cycle of the seasons, suggesting that despite the conflict and losses endured, balance has once again returned to Honeyland. The ending may feel a little textbook, but this doesn’t take away from its effectiveness.

Honeyland is no ordinary documentary and in its dramaturgy it certainly appears more fable than reportage. Nevertheless, this is a real story. It is because of the three years spent filming that the film-makers were able to condense all that they witnessed into a seamless narrative.

As a piece of art, the beauty of Honeyland is undeniable. It brings the unseen to life, sensitively depicting fleeting moments such as Hatidze saving a drowning bee from a well or helping a struggling tortoise climb from a cistern in the midst of her own frustration.

Hatidze herself is an example of making the unseen seen, as her remote life in northern Macedonia has now been thrust into the spotlight. However, as a tool for educating oneself in a time of eco-crisis, one must debate Honeyland’s usefulness. In terms of new knowledge gained, I didn’t learn anything new scientifically. It did not focus on the environment as a whole but instead zoomed in on two families' relationships with nature.

Nevertheless, just because Honeyland comes from a human rather than a scientific vantage point does not mean it is not useful to the environmental cause. We often fixate on finding new methods to solve our current dilemmas, however Honeyland suggests that there is as much solution to be found in the traditions of the past as there is in the potential of the future.

Perhaps fighting climate change is as much about a change of mindset and a social remembering of what we once knew, as the discovery of futuristic technology. Even though Hussein and his overseer represent the modern day in Honeyland, it is they, not Hatidze, that appear barbaric and uneducated. Overall, Honeyland proves that in the pursuit of saving the environment there is as much to learn in old practices as there is in new scientific discoveries.

By Kate Marsh ©

If you want to watch Honeyland, you can find it on Youtube and Amazon Prime.

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