Swarm and Tender

Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, Honeyland, 2019,  DCP, color, sound, 85 minutes.

HATIDZE MURATOVA, THE HERO of Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s Honeyland, is believed to be the last wild female honey gatherer in Europe. A tall, slim, agile woman in her early fifties with a hawklike nose, a snaggletooth, weathered skin, and extremely kind eyes, she is not merely charismatic but a radiant being. When the filmmakers first encountered Hatidze, she and Nazife, her frail eighty-five-year-old mother, were the sole inhabitants of a centuries-old stone village in an arid region of Macedonia. She told them that she had long dreamed of someone making a movie about her method of working in harmony with the bees. She wanted it to be shown on television. Her village doesn’t have running water or electricity, though, and hence no TV. Stefanov and Kotevska were prepping for another environmental documentary when they saw some trees with strange holes in them. They were told that the holes were for the beehives that Hatidze tends to.

Honeyland opens with a panoramic view of grassy fields surrounded by rocky hills. In the distance, we see Hatidze, dressed in the colors of the harsh landscape: an ocher blouse, a green-splashed headscarf, and a long gray-and-brown patterned skirt. As she climbs a narrow cliffside path, the camera follows close behind until she reaches a beehive hidden behind a rock. A series of close-ups shows how Hatidze removes the stone covering and reaches in with bare hands to extract honeycomb-covered frames, calling to the bees with high, piercing cries and lulling them with smoke. After taking some of their honey, she slides the frames back into the hive, reassuring the bees with her chant, “Half for you, half for me.” Hatidze’s ancient method of honey-gathering is the same as the sustainable model advocated by environmentalists. It results in highly flavored, pure honey, superior in taste and texture to honey from commercial hives, where bees are fed sugar in the winter. (If you want to taste the difference, go to the website You can see a trailer for the film, ravishing beyond any description I can write. And if you send a small contribution to the Honeyland Project, you will receive in exchange a small jar of the best honey you’ve ever tasted.)

The filmmakers originally planned to make a short video portrait of Hatidze. All the material needed for such a film is contained in the first fifteen minutes of Honeyland. After Hatidze collects this food of the gods, she makes a four-hour journey on foot and by bus—she happily sits next to an adolescent with a green Mohawk—to a crowded Skopje market, where she banters and bargains (yes, her honey is the best, but is it worth twenty euro?), and returns home with food, a paper fan for her mother, and chestnut-colored hair dye for them both. The interior of their tumbledown house is lit with the golden glow of a single oil lamp, and as Hatidze coaxes her mother to eat and to stretch out her legs in the bed—“I have become a tree,” answers Nazife—the faces of the two women have the chiaroscuro modeling of Italian Renaissance painting. Honeyland is a remarkably beautiful movie, all the more so because the images of Hatidze’s world testify to the way she regards the creatures in her care—her mother, her dog, her cat, and the bees—with kindness and endless love. Cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma do amazing work in both low light and blazing sunlight, whether they’re capturing events on the move or with time to compose their frames. Like the directors, the cameramen took on the difficult task of making the subjects forget that they were being filmed. In that it has no narration or talking heads, Honeyland is, in part, “direct cinema.” But the filmmaking team members were not flies on a wall. The bonds they formed with their subjects allowed the directors to set up scenes based on behavior and interactions observed when the cameras weren’t on, and to shoot these suggested improvisations so they could be edited like a fictional narrative (with, for example, shifting points of view and expressive cutaways, such as a jet streaking across the sky as if it were a messenger from another world.)

Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, Honeyland, 2019,  DCP, color, sound, 85 minutes.

What happened to Hatidze after Honeyland’s opening sequence led Stefanov and Kotevska to devote three more years to filming her story and another year editing the four hundred hours of footage into eighty-five minutes. One day, the Sam family, nomadic cattle farmers who speak the same archaic Turkish dialect as Haditze and her mother, install their caravan right next to the women’s house. Hussein, the father, and Ljutvie, the mother, have seven children and a herd of cattle, none of which they have the skill or even the inclination to manage. The parents are loud, ignorant, quick both to blame each other for mishaps and to use their hands on their kids, who in turn beat up on one another. Hatidze, nevertheless, enjoys their company and treats one of the preteen boys like the son she wishes she had. But things begin to go very badly when Hussein decides to dabble in apiculture himself. At first, he tries to follow Hatidze’s sustainable method, but he’s rough and out of sync with the bees, who sting him and the children all the time. The situation spirals when Hussein makes a deal with a bigshot merchant to supply more honey than he can possibly harvest. Although Hatidze warns him that if he starves his bees, they will pillage her hives and all of them will die, Hussein doesn’t listen, and the worst comes to pass. Hatidze understands that she and the bees need each other to survive. For the Sam family, their own survival comes first, and to hell with sound environmental practices. How amazing to discover in a nearly abandoned village a microcosm of the struggle to save the planet from extinction. “May God burn their livers,” curses Nazife, who has a way with words even on her deathbed. Just before the snow comes, the neighbors from hell move on, and Hatidze is alone with her dog and her cat while the wolves howl outside.

Because I want everyone who is reading this to see Honeyland, one of the greatest and most necessary movies of this terrible year, and I fear you won’t go if you think it will just depress you, I must give away the ending: The film answers Nazife’s last question to her daughter—“Is there spring?”—in the affirmative. The ground has barely begun to thaw when Hatidze climbs the hill to the perch on which we first saw her, and yes, when she opens the hive, there are bees. Honeyland closes with a close-up of Hatidze’s remarkable face. “A face is a landscape,” said Jean-Luc Godard, probably quoting someone else. That is certainly true of this film, where the micro and macro are entwined. And as I watched her, I also thought of Patience and Fortitude, the marble lions that flank the stairs to the main branch of the New York Public Library. Both qualities are written on Haditze’s face, making it an image to hold in the mind’s eye, now and in the troubles to come.

Honeyland is currently screening at the Quad in New York.