Honeyland is only the third documentary to earn a nomination in the Academy Award’s International or Foreign language category. The others are Waltz with Bashir in 2008 and The Missing Picture in 2013.
It is certainly unusual for a feature-length documentary about a beekeeper to make it to the Oscars, particularly one from North Macedonia, which is not exactly a hotbed of filmmaking. So, the journey is worth studying. Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov were given the assignment to make a short documentary about the Bregalnica river region, where life is unstable for the local farmers because the river changes course every decade or so, forcing them to move several times during a lifetime. On a scouting expedition, Stefanov encountered Hatidze Muratova, a beekeeper in her fifties who collected honey from wild bees and took care of her 85-year-old very ill mother, Nazife. She lived in a Turkish-speaking area, which, although less than 40 miles from the capital of Skopje, is extremely remote. Hatidze follows a traditional lifestyle. For example, as the surviving daughter of a family, she is obliged take care of her parents and not marry until they pass away. When it comes to collecting honey, she tells the bees, “Half for me, half for you.”
Kotevska and Stefanov and their small crew gathered 400 hours of footage over a three-year period. Using only natural lighting, cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma captured both the colorful beauty of the region and the dark interior where the mostly blind Nazife Muratova spends her days in bed. They also follow Hatidze as she walks and takes the bus into the city to sell her honey.
All of this makes for a fine, well-made nature film, but into this peaceful setting arrive the neighbors from hell: nomads Hüseyin and Ljutvie Sam and their seven children. At first, Hatidze Muratova is friendly to them, particularly as they speak the same obscure Turkish dialect that she does. She warms to the children and even teaches Hüseyin and one of his sons how to take care of the wild bees and harvest their honey using the traditional method. But Hüseyin is desperate for money to care for his large and growing family. “Half for me, half for you” doesn’t work for him. With the encouragement of a bulk honey buyer, he destroys the environmental harmony of Hatidze’s enterprise.
Honeyland premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and has won awards in countries as diverse as the United States, Spain, Brazil, India and Israel. The filmmakers used their first prize money to buy a new house for Hatidze in a nearby village.
So, what is it about Honeyland that raised it to unexpected international status? The film addresses, in a microcosm, not just the increasing concerns about threats to the environment, but also the pernicious intrusion of the greedier aspects of modern capitalism. Hatidze Muratova does a good job of pitching her product to market salesmen, but she is powerless to stave off the outside forces who care only about short-term profit.