Synopsis: A beekeeper, her bees and her neighbors in North Macedonia.
Honeyland is a documentary, filmed over three years in North Macedonia by directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubornir Stefanov. Their project began as an exploration of traditional beekeeping, following beekeeper Hatidze Muratova, a middle-aged woman living in the Balkans. She cares for her elderly bedridden mother and hikes the rocky mountainsides in search of beehives. She then collects –with her bare hands!!– some honeycombs and the bees that cling to it and carries them back to her abode in a covered straw basket. Outside her home she tends to the bees, giving them time to forage and make honey. Her central rule is this: Collect half and leave half for the bees.
Periodically she travels to the capital city of Skopje to sell jars of honey at markets. She manages to provide for herself and her mother — just barely. Her only luxuries are a radio and the hair dye she buys in town.
One day, a family moves in next door. Even though there are acres of land, the old stone huts stand close together. The family lives nomadically and whether they are squatters or they’ve paid for the property isn’t revealed. The middle-aged man and woman have seven children. And a small herd of cattle.
Hatidze seems glad for the company and befriends the family. Soon the man begins asking questions about apiculture and how much money she makes from selling honey. What follows is a tale of “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”
Movie Loon strives to include marginalized voices in our cinema conversations, so I sought the input of a North Macedonia native. Our guest today is a Macedonian bee like those featured in Honeyland. She lives in the vicinity where the movie was filmed.
FYI: The Macedonian bee is a subspecies of Western honey bee which is at risk of extinction. They are said to have a docile temperament and disinclination to swarm. Like many other bees, they are eusocial and live in colonies headed by a queen with male drones to serve the queen’s reproductive needs (sounds like a set-up for insect porn), and foragers– all of whom are female. Like all bees they collect pollen and nectar to feed the colony.
The following interview was conducted with the help of technology to convert audio to vibrations (since bees can’t hear)….
Movie Loon: Thank you for joining Movie Loon. I know you haven’t seen the movie, but you do forage in the area where the people in the movie live, so I’d like to hear your insights. First, do you make any distinctions between wild-living bees and those “kept” by humans?
Bee: No. We intermix without incident when foraging; it doesn’t matter what hive we belong to. There is only violence if our hive is invaded. We need to protect the food and the young. And our queen.
Movie Loon: I can imagine it’s a delicate balance finding food and not being interfered with — that actually happened to the human, Hatidze, who foraged without a colony. The colony of people with the cows interfered with her livelihood.
Bee: I knew there would be trouble! Bees don’t make hives where there isn’t enough forage. Why did the many people hive next to her? And their collective was completely disorganized with the young drifting in and out of the hive. And I know I’m “just” an insect, but at least I keep myself and my hive clean. And who decided to bring all those hoofed ruminants to a grassless land?
Movie Loon: I don’t know if it was the man or woman, but feeding them corn is bad for them. It was awful how the kids threw rocks at the animals. Anyway, the man– the one who smells like cigarettes– decided to bring the thousands of bees to his place.
Bee: Fool! There wasn’t enough forage. Everyday they would swarm because he took all their honey. They were right to sting him!
Movie Loon: Well, in the movie he says he needs to support his family. I might have suggested family planning, but no one asked me, ha ha. The human next door tried to show him how to not bother the bees and leave them enough honey. One of the young took her advice seriously, but the man got mad and said he knew what he was doing.
Bee: He’s worse than a wasp! Why did she welcome them? The solitary one needs to know she can only trust those in the hive. I would die for my hive and my super sisters and they would do the same for me!
Movie Loon: Readers might not know that super sisters are daughters of the same queen.
Bee: Why don’t they know about haplodiplodity and its evolutionary advantages?
Movie Loon: Maybe people are too self-centered? But back to the movie… the woman really liked the company of the young. Singing and dancing with them…
Bee: Dance? No, I saw that one day. A dance is a series of waggles that communicates where to find forage. Human “dance” looks like what happens when my kind flails about with a mite infestation.
Movie Loon: I know that you must be serious about caring for the young in the hive. In Honeyland it concerned me how the kids were always running around unsupervised and uneducated. This one kid was always sassing the man about how he f*&%ed things up and I could imagine him running off to be his own boss in a few years.The parents were rough with the kids and the little ones had bee stings all over them–
Bee: Did the young attack the hives?!
Movie Loon: No. The bees were just really upset that the man kept disturbing them and taking all their honey. You see, this other big man showed up and said he would buy honey only if the man had a lot to sell. He was like some demented honey baron, always badgering the man to raid wild hives and take the honey.
Bee: What?! I would’ve stung the sh*& out of him!
Movie Loon: It was frustrating to watch. The woman was very sympathetic, trying to live with Nature and care for her mother…
Bee: When our queen can no longer reproduce, we smother her and have a new queen.
Movie Loon: Dear God, that’s horrifying.
Bee: It’s best for the hive. I mean, overall the queen has a good life: flying around mating, being fed royal jelly. My role is foraging. Humans don’t even know what their roles are. I may not be a “genius” but I can see with my own compound eyes that humans mess things up all the time. Like when that man lit the trees on fire! The lone woman told him to stop, but he said, now grass would grow. Oh, sure! Tomorrow we’ll wake up and the mountains will have transformed into the great plains!
Movie Loon: Oh, Bee, I can see what you’re saying. But I think people who see Honeyland will like to see how resourceful the woman is and how beautiful the land is. You would like the scene where she saves a bee from drowning.
Bee: Excellent. It’s true that we can’t swim, but we can hydrofoil over to a dry edge. Which is cooler than swimming if you ask me. No offense.
Movie Loon: None taken. I want to thank you for your time and leave you with a story about humans and bees… there is a Greek myth about Melissa, a nymph who cared for the God Zeus when he was a baby. She fed him honey instead of milk. She hid him from his father Cronus who wanted to devour him. When he found out, he was mad at Melissa and turned her into an earthworm. When Zeus was grown, he and his brothers overthrew Cronus. He then helped Melissa by transforming her into a bee. Zeus ruled all the gods from Mount Olympus. And he still liked honey.
Bee: Well, who doesn’t?
P.S. Honeyland was nominated for Best Documentary Feature and Best International Film Feature at the Academy Awards, 2020. It was also the most awarded film at the Sundance Movie Festival, 2019.
Movie Loon Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Thought-provoking and sensitively approached.
Humor Highlight: When one of the kids rebukes his dad for his shortcomings.