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Documentary Review: Honeyland (Медена земја)

Honeyland

Turkish-Macedonian beekeeper Hatidze Muratova shows how she makes her livelihood in Honeyland.

Very rarely do I see documentaries, including around Oscar-time. However Honeyland caught my attention. I felt it was a documentary well worth seeing.

The film opens in Bekirlija, a village in North Macedonia that’s part of the Balkan mountain range. Near Bekirlija, a woman of Turkish descent named Hatidze Muratova comes to gather honey from the various beekeeping farms around her home. She’s what’s called a ‘wild beekeeper’ as she keeps bees in the traditional methods and traditional apiaries. Whenever she gathers honey and honeycomb, she always says “Half for me, half for you” as she believes it’s the right thing to leave some behind for the bees. With the honey she reaps, she’s able to sell it at the open air markets of Skopje. Her honey sells better at a higher cost than other honey farmers. She uses the money for goods and food for herself, her cat and dog, and her ailing mother. Her house has no electricity and no running water. However this is the traditional way of beekeeping she wants to do.

Things suddenly change. A Turkish farmer named Hussein Sam arrives. He intends to set up farm in the area near Hatidze. He brings with him his wife Ljutvie, six children, many trailers, a lot of clutter and a lot of cattle. He’s a cattle farmer but he also plans to do a lot of bee farmings as well. Although Hatidze confides to her mother she fears for her future, she does try to be friendly about it. Hatidze introduces herself to Hussein, Ljutvie and the children. They welcome her in, the wife spends time with her, the children find her fun to be around and look up to her. She even tries to be friendly with Hussein and informs him of her beekeeping. Even as he starts beekeeping of his own, she tells him to make sure his bees don’t attack her bees.

Time passes and Hatidze appears to be doing fine. She still continues to feed her mother and her pets, she continues to reap more honey. She’s still friendly with the Sams and even goes to a local Turkish festival with them. However it’s evident there are difficulties coming. First off the children are rowdy. Especially the boys who wrestle. Also Hussein has to up his beekeeping ways to fulfill expectations from contractors. That adds frustration to him. He has built lots of apiaries around the farm to fulfill the expectations. He even recommends that his children don’t learn beekeeping ways from Hatidze, despite how much they admire her.

That’s an added headache for Hatidze as all his farming is causing disorder. She goes to one of the apiaries she made and notices so many dead bees. She’s not making the honey she used to. He accidentally burns a bush. The bush is vital in luring the bees over to Hatidze’s farms. The Hussein cuts down one of the branches: a branch that contains one of Hatidze’s hives. Everything Hussein Sam has done has come at the expense of Hatidze’s way of life. But it’s not without a price on the Sams. Fifty of the cattle had died. Hussein was so fixated on getting honey for his contractors, he and his children neglected the cattle. That leads the Sams to leave the area and find another area to farm. Then one day shortly after, Hatidze’s mother dies. The film ends with Hatidze with her dog and cat all alone.

The message is clear in this film. It showcases a woman’s traditional way of life of making pure honey and shows how big business makes a mess of things. Especially an environmental mess. The film makes its point as it shows two different beekeepers. It shows Hatidze doing her beekeeping craft the traditional way humbly, and for the good of the land she lives in. It also shows the Sams who make honey in massive levels because of the demands of the contractors they work for. In the end, it becomes a case that neither win. Hatidze loses her business and the Sams have to move because of what they did to the land. In the end, it shows that the ‘half for me, half for you’ Hatidze does is the right thing.

The film is not just about a person trying to keep their beekeeping the way it is. It’s also about the person themselves. We learn of Hatidze and her loneliness. In accordance to tradition in her culture, the last-born female stays single to look after the parents. Any other younger sisters of Hatidze dies. You can understand the added problem when the Sams come in. She may face competition with the family in terms of farming and beekeeping, but the appearance of the Sams helps with her loneliness. Before they came, it was just her and her mother. When they came, the Sams made her feel like she was part of a family. I think that had a lot to do with the beekeeping issue because strife with the Sams could lead to her being lonely again. I think the filmmakers wanted to show that added difficulty with the problem. The inclusion of the song ‘You Are So Beautiful’ that we hear over radios also symbolizes that.

I also think the filmmakers wanted to send another message too. The Sam adults feuded with Hatidze over time, but the kids looked up to her and found her a delight to be around. They even had more appreciation for her way of beekeeping than their father’s, which irritated Hussein. I think they wanted to send the message of how children and adults view others differently.

It’s not just the message that makes the film. It’s the documentary itself. This documentary is filmed over a three-year period and there’s no narration. The film has Hatidze tell her story through the conversations she has with her mother and with others, including the Sams. Even silent moments with Hatidze tell a lot with the story. The film also tells a lot with the conversations Hussein Sam has, mostly with his wife and with the contractor he’s hired by. We learn that Hussein may do a lot and it’s intruding on Hatidze, but he’s put under a lot of demand and heavy expectation. The film also shows his side of the story too. Even as it tells each other’s sides of their story, the film does it in an excellent way. It also delivers a lot of great cinematographic images and shots, as well as excellent sound mixing. The story also gives you a feel for the land where this is happening.

The most unique thing about Honeyland is that it’s not only North Macedonia’s first nomination in the Best International Feature Film category in 25 years, but because it’s the first film to earn Oscar nominations in the Feature Film category and Best Documentary Feature! The film has won a wide number of awards including the documentary prize at the Sundance film festival, the Best First Documentary Feature at the Critics Choice Documentary awards, as well as the Best Cinematography in a Documentary at the American Society of Cinematographers Awards. Also interesting to note is that the money the filmmakers won at the Sarajevo Film Festival, they used it to buy a new house for Hatidze. In addition the film’s website is giving 30g jars of the honey from Hatidze and the Sams for the Donate For The Honeyland Community fundraising initiative at a minimum donation. All donated money with go to improve the lives of Hatidze, the Sams and the local community. You can do so yourself by clicking here.

Honeyland is a documentary without a narrator. Instead it’s a documentary where the protagonist tells the story by living their life. That’s enough to send a powerful message and remind you of others on the ‘other side of the world.’