The importance of balance rests upon every layer of Honeyland.
There’s a principle repeated over and over throughout the duration of Honeyland: Balance. When we first observe the film’s key figure, Macedonian beekeeper Hatidze Muratova, tending to her beehive, she leaves half of the resulting honey on the rock and proclaims: Half for the bees, and half for her. Any more than that, and her system would be disturbed, and the bees wouldn’t produce as much honey in the future.
The importance of balance rests upon every layer of Honeyland, of which there are many. The honey needs to be balanced between herself and the bees; food and resources need to be balanced between Hatidze and her 85-year-old mother, Nazife; and the key conflict emerges when a new family moves in on a neighboring property, and the neighbors need to figure out a way to balance the bees and honey between them.
Hatidze, who always wears bee-like yellows and oranges, is caring and open to everyone around her, and she extends this openness to her neighbors, teaching them how to properly care for the bees. But unlike Hatidze and Nazife, her new neighbors have several children and therefore several more mouths to feed, and the heightened demand creates tension when the parents go against Hatidze’s advice and take more than half of the honey.
There’s a broader environmental message playing out here, embellished by the natural landscapes that flower and loom around this part of the Macedonian countryside. Life abounds in Honeyland: bees flitting around their honeycomb, a kitten Hatidze gifts to one of the neighboring kids and a horse giving birth. But when the neighbors mishandle the beehive and take too much honey, Nafize exclaims, “Cursed be the neighbors” — and sure enough, it does seem like a curse befalls them, as 50 of the young calves from their farm fall sick and die. Hatidze has taught them that the honey is to be used for healing, yet when they take too much, this is the end they find: sickness, death and tension.
Hatidze is a charming and compelling figure upon whom to drape the film’s environmental concerns. She’s delighted by the neighboring family’s children, and she likes dying her hair. “Everybody likes to look nice, Mum, even me,” she tells Nazife at one point, preparing the chestnut brown color she picked out for herself at the marketplace in Skopje. She’s a good neighbor, caring and compassionate, but she also knows grief, outrage and anger. When the film ends, winter has come to the desert and Hatidze has found a new companion: a dog, which she teases and pets in the film’s final moments. This closing feels like a reminder that animals and insects are like our neighbors on Earth, and neighboring relationships are complicated: We take from them when we should give and share and use them where we ought to extend love.
The film is also stunning in that it gives the viewer a scope of what exists around its edges: the time, the landscapes, the lifetimes and people. The crew of Honeyland spent years filming the day-to-day lives of Hatidze, her mother and her neighbors, and distilled all of their practices and chance encounters into a film just short of an hour and a half. But the life that extends beyond the movie itself is still felt within it, still gestured toward and honored, by the close personal attention to its central figures, the frank and startling cinematography and the unacknowledged denial of outright explanation.
Honeyland distinguishes itself as a documentary in that it never cuts out of Hatidze’s life to offer context. There are no direct interviews with her or her neighbors, no title cards, textual interludes or voiceovers. Details about the film that might be considered key, like the fact that Hatidze is the last female beekeeper in Macedonia, are not mentioned once. The result is the clearest possible dip into this world, a respectful refusal to call attention to whatever distance exists between Hatidze’s life and the viewer. This world is close to us, after all, if it’s even a screen away. It’s a world in which resources both sustain us and drive us apart, in which neighbors negotiate knowledge and skill, in which we all know a shared sweetness and its sting.