Movie Review: Everything’s not sweet in “Honeyland”

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“Honeyland” is an elegiac and gloriously photogenic tragedy, an environmental parable played out in striking images and stark lessons in the high desert of northern Macedonia.

Filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov utterly immersed themselves in the ruins of a village where Hatidze Muratova, a high mileage/hard miles 55 year-old farm woman shares all she surveys with a house full of cats, a hound named Jackie and her blind-in-one eye 80something mother, Nazife.

They bill her as “the last female bee hunter in Europe,” and who are we to question that claim? They tell her story without titles, without narration or explanation, without easily giving up either the geography or even her name.

They just watch her, as do we, crawling along cliffs, raiding wild bee hives in the rocks, in hollow trees — not that there are very many trees. She calls to the bees as she sweeps them into her mud and wicker portable hives. She will take them home and use them to diversify her own colony, supplement her home hives.

Her “all natural” honey is the one thing she has to sell to the world to add to their meager income and spartan diet. She travels to Skopje to sell it in the market so that she can buy bananas, medicine for her mother and hair dye for herself.

Hatidze is the very picture of Third World poverty, a woman who’s never seen a photo of a dentist, much less the real thing. A banana is a dietary treat, especially for her mother, who may say “I don’t intend to die,” but plainly isn’t long for this world.

In the ruins of the barns and houses of their abandoned village, Hatidze sets up hives in chimneys, lecturing the bees (in Turkish) as she harvests honey, applying the smoker, never using gloves.

“Half you give to me, and half I leave for you.”

She may be poor, and may even be the last of her kind. But she knows how to be a steward of the land and knows her trade.

And then, a mob moves in next door.

They’re all Turks, like the Muratovas. But Mom sizes them up, even with her poor hearing and one half-good eye. “Cursed be the neighbors.”

Hussein and Ljutvie Sam have a full brood — I counted half a dozen kids, from mid-teens to toddler. They show up with a tiny, half-gutted travel trailer, a battered flatbed and a herd of cattle.

And with all the empty hovels and ruins scattered across this village, they move in right next door to the Muratovas.

They are fractious and careless, short-cut taking rednecks whose free-range children are a perpetual serious accident waiting to happen. While we wait, we might hazard a thought to what the filmmakers will do when this child nearly drowns in the river, that one roughhouses him or herself or a sibling into a gory injury, a cow tramples a tiny tyke or the bee stings take their toll on them all.

Because you know these hicks are hellbent on getting into that bee keeping business. The dad is a lummox, having kids hold nails as he pounds them in with a rock, making them pitch in — even the smallest — in caring for the cattle.

Which you know they’re neglecting.

Adding beekeeping to their duties just means a lot of crying, some serious profane backtalk from the older ones, and a lot of swollen faces from stings.

Hatidze’s pastoral tranquility is first disrupted, then seriously challenged. She tries to help out, and one boy takes a genuine interest in treating bees like the endlessly renewable, symbiotic resource they are to people like Hatidze.

Dad doesn’t want the kid hanging out with her and sure as hell doesn’t want him listening to her lectures. Because Hussein is a dimwitted know-nothing know-it-all with an eye on putting a few more Euros in his pocket.

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He lets a plump partner he supplies honey to bully him into cleaning the hives out, which stresses his bees and has them raiding her hives to keep from starving.

He trashes the landscape in the manner of millennia of subsistence farming (and big time rancher) cattlemen, burning trees and shrubs that the bees need because his cattle will need the grass that grows out of the scorched earth.

Short term thinking, greed, writ large in the First World, just as tragic in the Third World.

Where “The Biggest Little Farm in the World” was a warm and optimistic film about getting back to “the old ways,” self-sustaining farming practices, “Honeyland” is about what happens in reality — First World, Second World and especially slash-and-burn to just feed yourself Third World farming.

Kotevska and Stefanov let their camera linger over a whole array of arguments and accidents as they occur, creating suspense as the viewer fears for this child, that toddler, that spouse pushing a truck 25 times her weight, or that kitten or calf roughly handled by unsupervised kids.

It’s also a lovely film, with stunning vistas that belie how hard life must be there.

The first act shows us the dry, sparse vegetation of a form of “paradise,” one which — let’s be frank — most people had the sense to flee. The second act is chaotic, the bedlam and hardship the “neighbors from hell” visit upon Hatidze and her mom.

And the third act? Melancholy, sad, and yet you find yourself hoping against hope that “hope” will find its way back into this world in the form of nature’s way, the natural order of things put right by Hatidze’s wise and weathered hands.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: Unrated, injuries, death, animal deaths, profanity

Cast: Hatidze Muratova Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam and their brood.

Credits:Directed by Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov A Neon release.

Running time: 1:27

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