Just when you think that documentary films have tackled every possible storyline, one pops up to bring new light to a subject and geographic site yet relatively unexplored. Such is the case with the highly-praised, feature-length documentary called Honeyland, a film of such quality that it is to-date the only movie to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film. Many thanks to my friend, Everett Aison, artist and filmmaker, for pointing me towards this title, which is available for home viewing.
Released in early 2019, Honeyland is a North Macedonian production, filmed over a three-year period by Tamara Kotevyska and Liubomir Stefanov. Altogether, they shot 400 hours of footage to create the 87-minute movie. The focus of the documentary is an aging woman, Hatidze Muratova, a beekeeper who lives in what looks like a mere pile of rocks in a rural outpost of North Macedonia. She has only her 85-year-old blind, invalid mother to keep her company, until a nomadic family with many children moves into another pile of rocks across the way.
When the family learns that Hatidze keeps bees that make wonderful honey that she is able to sell for a decent price, the father decides to tap into his neighbor’s skills. She willingly shares her expertise but warns them that they have to conserve. They must leave half the honey for the bees, she stresses. But money is more important to the large struggling family than conservation of nature. They take all the honey, with a dire result.
The documentary is well crafted, with painterly lighting and good atmosphere. Hatidze wears a touch of bright color in every scene, which brings her to the forefront of her surroundings, which are mainly grey and white unless she is walking in green fields.
It is difficult to say which aspect of Honeyland is most striking. It may be Hatidze herself; this film is a sensitive study of a caring soul who was never allowed to marry and who lives a solitary, rustic existence. Honeyland also shows the harshness of poverty, as displayed by the nomadic family. They don’t smile, hug, and kiss. Instead, the parents threaten beatings, swear, and force work upon even the very young of the brood. They upset the forces of nature to make an extra bit of money and then move on to the next scrapheap. Perhaps the most memorable message of Honeyland is that the exploitation of natural resources is criminal and has alarming consequences.
A similar message comes through in an award-winning 2018 Iceland production called Woman at War, also available for home viewing. This clever fiction film was cowritten and directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, and stars Halldora Geirharosdottir as Halla, a middle-aged eco-terrorist whose heroes are Gandhi and Mandela. Oddly wearing an expensive Icelandic sweater that I gladly would add to my own wardrobe, she hikes through muddy fields with weapons and explosives to blow the power grid to keep the government and industrial complex from over-exploiting Iceland’s natural wealth.
Woman at War is a drama with absurdist touches; at times it’s a dark comedy. Halla has a real dilemma that humanizes her beyond her destructive actions. She has to choose between eco-terrorism and adopting a four-year-old Ukrainian orphan, a girl whose family has been ravaged by war.
Honeyland and Woman at War have much in common. Both have themes about the conservation of natural resources and the plights of highly engaging women from societies far removed from our own.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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