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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.’

J. Crew In The Middle Of ‘Toenailgate’

This picture in a J. Crew e-flyer is the subject of major discussion this week.

Ever notice how in the news there’s always a story that comes from nowhere and is not worth paying any mind, until some loudmouth makes a hullabaloo about it? It’s funny that while Japan is recovering from a tsunami, earthquake and nuclear meltdown, and Libya is fighting a war to depose a dictator, there’s a minor story that makes a lot of loud news. It happened this week when the picture on the right that was featured in an e-catalog from J.Crew got on a conservative pundit’s nerves to the point he spoke out about it. And it has since drawn a lot of reactions since Tuesday.

It all started when J.Crew sent out its e-catalog to subscribers on Tuesday April 5th. For those unfamiliar, J. Crew is a clothing store known for its colorful preppy looking clothes. Its most famous customer is First Lady Michelle Obama. Included is a Saturday With Jenna column written by J. Crew president and creative director Jenna Lyons. On that column’s front page that weekend was that picture of her having fun with her 5 year-old son Beckett. Why should that cause controversy? Because the fun she had with Beckett was painting his toenails with pink nail polish. She even included in the Quality Time caption: “Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.”

Some of the J. Crew customers who received that ad would look at it as something funny and some might raise their eyebrows over it. It was able to stay away from being a complete controversy, until Tuesday April 12th. That’s when FOX News Psychologist Dr. Keith Ablow made these comments:

 Yeah, well, it may be fun and games now, Jenna, but at least put some money aside for psychotherapy for the kid—and maybe a little for others who’ll be affected by your “innocent” pleasure.

This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity—homogenizing males and females when the outcome of such “psychological sterilization” is not known.

Dr. Ablow further goes on to talk about the benefits and goods of gender distinctions and continues:

Jenna Lyons and J. Crew seem to know exactly what they’re up to. That’s why the photograph of Jenna’s son so prominently displays his hot pink, neon toe nails. These folks are hostile to the gender distinctions that actually are part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race. They respect their own creative notions a whole lot more than any creative Force in the universe.

Dr. Ablow wasn’t the only right wing pundit speaking their mind on this. Four days earlier, Erin M. Brown, writer for the Culture and Media Institute website, wrote an article on the ad which she declared ‘blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children’. She then went on to say: “Not only is Beckett likely to change his favorite color as early as tomorrow, Jenna’s indulgence (or encouragement) could make life hard for the boy in the future. J.CREW, known for its tasteful and modest clothing, apparently does not mind exploiting Beckett behind the façade of liberal, transgendered identity politics.”

Since the ad controversy, there have been a lot of responses. Numerous news stories in websites, newspapers and television have featured the heated issue. All three major networks have done discussions about this. They’ve interviewed parents on the street: some were freaked out while some liked it. Psychiatrists interviewed have said it’s normal for children to play cross-dressing games. Some news stories showed celebrity parents including Gwen Stefani with pictures of their own boys wearing nail polish.  Alyona Minkovski from RT Network responded: “Look people. Mom’s actually spending time with her child having fun, which is a lot more than what I can say about a lot of parents out there who tend to neglect their children. And if painting your child’s toenails is a way for a child and parent to connect, then have at it.” Jon Stewart even talked about it on his Daily Show, declaring the fiasco ‘Toemageddon 2011’ and commenting: “You make it sound like it’s a story about incest or cannabalism…You’re all aware that nail polish comes off, right? You’re all acting like this lady gave her son an ‘I Love Cock’ tattoo.” For the record, J. Crew have not responded because they ‘don’t want to add fuel to a non-issue.’

Even amongst the internet, there have been responses. Youtubers have also spoken their mind with one man even paining his fingernails pink. On the opposite side, there’s been at least one video in support of the complaining pundits, from the channel Final Justice Movement. Bloggers have posted their opinions. Message boards have also been loaded with comments both for the ad ‘what century is this?’ and against this ‘This is disgusting!’ Change.org started a petition thanking J.Crew ‘for the heartwarming ad’ and received 7500 signatures. The 10 year-old son of a writer for Wired magazine painted his fingernails green in response. There’s even a Pink Piggies page on Facebook where the page honors ‘people of all gender identities.’

One thing I like to say is that it’s another example of how people like to raise a big fiasco of just about anything. I’ve seen it from both the left and right side of people raising a big fuss over something simple. It seems like the thing nowadays to be offended about anything. Years ago, people were declaring The Passion Of The Christ to be anti-Semitic when it’s the story of Christ’s crucifixion that has been played out many times in the past including on film. Recently after the movie Mars Needs Moms was released, a gay Youtube personality posted on his Twitter page that it’s very offensive to non-traditional families. And now we have right-wing pundits taking a crack at this ad. Do people enjoy getting offended?

Yes, it’s a different parent-child bonding scenario but it’s not worth declaring ‘propaganda’ to turn into an issue for headlines’ sake. I also agree with Alyona: in case you didn’t notice, there’s a load of joy between Jenna and Beckett in that picture. It’s very common for parents to neglect their children in their busy lives so a moment like that should be considered fun.Secondly I don’t think paining a son’s toenails pink makes him gay. His orientation has already formed itself even before he was born. In addition when I brought this story up at work, one of my co-workers mentioned that she painted her nephew’s fingernails and they had a fun time together. Weeks later when she brought up ‘nail polish’, he said “That’s girls stuff.” So what does that tell you? Also I admire J. Crew for not responding to this and dismissing it for the ‘non-issue’ that it is.