Community, exploitation and beekeeping feature in this Macedonian observational documentary

Ruairí McCann on Tamara Kotevska’s and Ljubomir Stefanov’s ‘Honeyland’ (2019)

Not too far into Honeyland, the debut feature from duo Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, there is a jolt in the form of a drastic change in scenery. Up until this specific point the film has been set on following its subject, a middle-aged Turkish woman called Haidize, as she makes her way across a mountainous and sun-dried Macedonian heartland. Her traversals are captured mainly in long shots that find their near match in this jarring cut to her in a thronging crowd in the country’s capital, Skopje. If someone were to go in with no prior information and then dispel the suspicion that they were watching a documentary, Honeyland could pass have passed as a period film until the sudden shift to modernity put that notion to rest.

But it is important this notion existed at all because the film means to submerge its audience into the pace and character of alternative ways of living, with Haidize’s dating back to antiquity. For she is a keeper of wild bees who eschews modern equipment. Instead, she uses a canister of aerosolised dung as the only accoutrement to her primary tools, which are her own guile, hands, and a font of inherited accumulated knowledge of a dying art as she harvests honey from a hive she keeps in a covered natural crevice near her home. A hovel in the ruins of an abandoned village where her sole companion is her elderly and very infirm mother, Nazife, whose care takes up the bulk of her free time.

Her sparse and lonely life is upended by the unexpected arrival of new neighbours, a family of Turkish cattle herders (in a moment that , though of course was unplanned, in the end product seems, like only a few other moments, slightly rehearsed with the film’s relationship to fiction remaining disappointedly unexplored for it never rises beyond a few faint gestures). While Haidize’s life is tethered, theirs is nomadic as they halt their drive in order to earn a living before winter sets in. The two groups meet and bond to form a peaceful co-existence. Until their relationship is complicated when the father, Hussein, having to find a way to support his wife and seven children and pay off debts, decides to take up the art of beekeeping with both his inexperience and adoption of more modern methods infringing on Haidze’s ability to maintain her way of life.

Honeyland unfolds with little overt interference or commentary from its filmmakers, for apart from a slab of choral tune which bookends the film to both a rhapsodising and melancholy effect, there is no outside exposition, verbal or visual. Instead the film largely adopts on ad hoc cinema verité style with the sound muffled as the camera sits snug in the corner of Haidize’s home. Setting onto the screen in lo-fi chiaroscuro observations of both her and her mother as they intimately converse about the life they have spent together, the latter’s imminent end and the former’s inevitable, and likely final, solitude. This catch-as-catch-can style of recording an unfamiliar environment that is also in flux almost ensures an abundance of hair-raising moments, captured in a rush. From brief incidents such as a cinematographer almost tipping over as he chases a bull which has bolted or a more extended sequence like a heffer birthing a calf, aided by a pre-teen who makes for a cynical midwife. These stumbled upon scenes of found bravura serves to shake-up a film that could have been static and contemplative to the point of inertia.

So goes the effect of the placement of the film’s most kinetic scene, featuring the family’s struggling to wrangle their livestock. Their efforts are framed by irregularly paced circular moving shots, pulled off in the midst of this maddened herd. Their kicks and charges feel like they are just a hair away from landing on the lenses with the camera’s backward movements becoming a documentarian’s equivalent of a cartoon sucking in its stomach to avoid a sabre thrust. That this scene immediately follows, along with the scene of the family’s night-time arrival which directly precedes it, a film that has thenceforth been devoted to the patient observation of a nearly singular subject makes for a disruptive effect and so a fitting analogy to how this new community upends Haidize’s life.

The cine verité slapstick isn’t just confined to the bovine. It includes minutes on end spent on the family’s children and their roughhousing. This most fundamental form of building social ties sits alongside and combined with scenes of Haidize’s caring for her mother and her increasingly complex relationship with the family (especially one of the sons, who she takes on as a sort of protégé). Along with the conflict that arises, it is part in parcel with film’s attentiveness to how socials systems are built and then also bend to achieve that most human desire for company and deep personal connection in the face of solitude. Not only this need evident throughout but also the way capitalism exploits it as a vessel to engender a system of control and inequality. For the family’s life and means cannot only be described as nomadic but also as a kind of latter-day serfdom with the landlord class represented in the form of a Bosnian businessman who appears periodically to extract the debt they owe him.

In these encounters, Kotevska and Stefanov shoot to emphasise his carrot and stick approach. How he gets what he wants by flitting with weaponised ease between a glad-handing demeanour with key appeals to their sense of community (eating with them and treating the children) to then openly pressuring them to hit an unreasonable quota. The result is that the family over-farm with the dearth of honey forcing their bees to kill and steal from Haidize’s, forcing her to bear much of the cost of the hold the businessman exerts over them. Even though the film begins and ends with Haidize as this lone, borderline mythic, figure, the meat in between never loses sight on how ultimately, she can’t escape the hierarchies that set the world into shape.

Honeyland is screening in select UK cinemas now.

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.