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SUNDANCE 2019 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Review: Honeyland

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- Macedonian filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov's documentary is a visually spectacular piece of cinéma vérité

Review: Honeyland

Macedonian directorial duo Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov's Honeyland [+see also:
trailer
interview: Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara K…
film profile
]
has bowed in the Sundance Film Festival's World Cinema Documentary Competition. This visually appealing piece of cinéma vérité represents an extraordinary journey from a personal to a local to a global level by following one beekeeper in rural Macedonia. 

The spectacular wide opening shot sees the protagonist, Hatidze, a 55-year-old woman in a yellow blouse and with the obligatory scarf on her head, climbing the steep side of a rocky hill to reach a bee colony located in the crevices. Without gloves or netting, she takes out the honeycomb, chanting a song that seems to keep the bees calm. 

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Back in her deserted village, in her small, dirt-floored house without running water or electricity, she is taking care of her bedridden, half-blind mother. She regularly goes to the capital, Skopje, to sell her honey at the open-air market (where it is universally praised by other sellers and customers), and sometimes gets a treat for herself, like hair dye, and a fan for her mother. 

Hatidze's seems to be a modest but idyllic life: she is a woman content with the simple day-to-day, a smile rarely leaving her sunburnt face. But things change when a nomadic family, belonging to the same Turkish minority as Hatidze, moves in next door. Patriarch Hussein, along with his wife, seven children and a herd of cows, arrives in a truck pulling a trailer. The noise they produce is deafening in the empty village, and it only gets worse from that point on.

Soon Hussein and his family are running around raising a ruckus, quarrelling and swearing, and barely able to control their cattle. But Hatidze welcomes them with open arms and her best brandy, playing with the particularly unruly children and ensuring that Hussein is intrigued by the honey – to him, her regular price of €16 for a kilo sounds like good business. As Hussein brings in honey-bee boxes and a demanding buyer from Bosnia, we quickly learn that this is not a man who will respect the beekeepers' rule of “take half, leave half”. Without the slightest awareness of or concern for how to treat animals (or other human beings, for that matter), and in a blind rush to make a profit at any cost, he destroys the delicate ecological balance like a bull in a china shop, endangering both his own and Hatidze's bees.

Kotevska and Stefanov, with invaluable contributions from editor and producer Atanas Georgiev, show remarkable discipline in making this film a true piece of cinéma vérité. Although they spent a significant amount of time with the protagonists, as proven by the unprecedented access they had to them, even in scenes in which there is outright quarrelling and physical fights inside Hussein's family, they keep their approach strictly observational. This means that audiences have to fill in a lot of gaps themselves, but it also leaves room for them to perceive a deeper and more important story arc: from Hatidze's personal angle, to how a sudden race for profit affects the local ecological balance, to the significance of bees for the global environment. 

The cinematography by Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma is nothing short of spectacular, whether they are filming nature itself in wide shots, jumping around with a handheld camera in the midst of Hussein's children as they struggle to hold the cows or run away from angry bees, or sitting in Hatidze's candlelit house, with her mother constantly in the half-shadow.

Honeyland is a co-production between Macedonia's Trice Films and Apolo Media. Germany's Deckert Distribution has the international rights.

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