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Film review: Honeyland

Film

The intriguing and beautifully filmed documentary Honeyland tells the story of one of the world’s last wild bee hunters – and it’s clear why it was the most awarded film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, writes Jo Vabolis.

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After inching carefully along the side of a cliff to reach a hive, Hatidze gently moves the bees. She is calm (despite her precarious position), calling and singing as she gathers the insects and prepares them for transport.

The 55-year-old beekeeper lives an isolated existence in a ruined hamlet deep in the mountains of the Balkans. Her small hut has no electricity and no running water, and there are no roads to provide easy access to the nearest town, which is a 20km walk away.

She lives with her mother, Nazife, who is housebound. Paralysed and with failing eyesight, the 85-year-old woman is aware of the burden she places on her only surviving child. “You can’t take me out. I’ve become like a tree!”

As they talk together each evening in the flickering candlelight, Hatidze delicately places morsels of food into her mother’s mouth, like a bird feeding its young. “One half for me. One half for you.” They are bound by duty and need.

Honeyland (87 minutes), screening in Adelaide as part of the OzAsia Festival film program, is the first feature film from Macedonian directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov. It’s not hard to see why this intriguing documentary about one of the world’s last wild bee hunters was the winner of the 2019 World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance — the creators have captured not only a glimpse of a unique culture but also a perspective on the balance between nature and the actions of man.

In their directors’ statement, Kotevska and Stefanov describe Hatidze’s story as “a microcosm for a wider idea of how closely intertwined nature and humanity are, and how much we stand to lose if we ignore this fundamental connection”.

Hatidze’s daily life is focused on managing the sustainability of her livelihood. We see her quietly going about the work of creating and maintaining hives. She regularly makes the journey into town to sell her honey and buy food and supplies — her weathered appearance an incongruous sight as she strides through traffic, carrying her precious produce in a bucket and homemade backpack, doing deals and explaining the benefits of her honey as she negotiates prices with market stallholders in the Macedonian town of Skopje.

With the arrival of the Sam family — father Hussein, mother Ljutvie and seven boisterous children — comes an interruption to daily life. Hatidze watches from behind her fence. Her peace is shattered by the sounds of play and hammering as the newcomers set themselves up, taking over the derelict outbuildings to house their herd of cattle.

Hatidze initially seems happy to connect with the couple and their children. They speak the same language, an ancient Turkish vernacular, and share the same resourcefulness at coping with the harsh country life.

A playful side to Hatidze’s nature is revealed as she makes an effort to befriend the travellers. The children are comfortably engaged with nature, playing in dirt, helping with the birthing of cows, learning about bees, and Hatidze freely shares her beekeeping techniques and secrets with Hussein, both to be helpful and to ensure the survival of her own hives. Gradually the neighbours learn more about each other.

The happy co-existence, however, is short-lived. Hussein has many mouths to feed and soon the pressure is on to sell his honey in large quantities. The whole family is forced into helping with production. Relationships are strained, and there are arguments about how best to manage the hives and live on their shared land. Nazife is steadfast in her support for her daughter — she might be frail but she’s alert to her plight. What follows is an exquisite depiction of the struggle of lives lived at the mercy of unpredictable conditions.

Special mention must be made of the cinematographers and crew who worked closely over three years with Honeyland’s subjects to record intimate personal interactions and the majestic scenery of the surroundings. The images are startling, contrasting the beauty and ruggedness of the landscape with the dark and claustrophobic living conditions of the two families.

Hatidze’s devotion to her mother and respect for her beloved bees and their environment shows through her actions, and the challenges faced by life in a caravan are evident.

Kangaroo Island, the South Australian tourist destination famous for its wild landscapes, is home to the world’s purest colony of Ligurian bees. I watched Honeyland soon after returning home from three blissful days on KI, well prepared to appreciate the issues at the heart of the film.

The threats faced by Hatidze are being faced the world over — encroachment of humans on space previously set aside for habitat, pristine wilderness being “developed” for the enjoyment of a select few, and the resulting impact on the local flora and fauna. This stunning film is a timely invitation to reflect on our role in protecting the world around us.

Honeyland is the OzAsia festival opening night film, screening at 7pm on Friday, October 18 at the Mercury Cinema, and again at 10.45am on October 25 and 2pm on November 3.

This year’s OzAsia film festival will feature more than 20 films, with the full program available here. Keep an eye on InDaily over the coming week for reviews of three other films: Wild Goose Lake, Ride Your Wave and We Are Little Zombies.

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