Synopsis: A woman utilizes ancient beekeeping traditions to cultivate honey in the mountains of Macedonia. When a neighboring family tries to do the same, it becomes a source of tension as they disregard her wisdom and advice.
Stars: Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam
Director: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Anytime the Oscar nominations are announced, it sets into motion a very different type of movie watching. Before that, you are shooting in the dark a bit and hoping you’re choosing correctly so that come nominations day you have that many fewer movies to see before the big night. In recent years, I’ve gotten better at keeping an ear to the ground and picking up on the more obscure films that may populate the less mainstream categories because those may be harder to track down in the short period of time between the nominations and the ceremony.
When John Cho and Issa Rae announced the unsurprising nominees for the top categories for the 92nd Academy Awards on January 13, I was able to breathe a little easier that I didn’t have a huge mountain to climb if I wanted to clear the board again this year. Last year I was able to see all the movies nominated in every category and by the time all the nominations were read and removing the short features that I already knew I’d be seeing I was left with a list of seven movies I’d need to make time for before February 9th. Sounds easy, right? Wel…then again… Now comes the hard part…actually tracking them down and watching them.
The first one was easy because I already had it; the screener had been looming large on the shelf just waiting to be popped in for a month or so but never made it to the top of the pile until now. Only the second film from Macedonia to be nominated for the Best International Feature Oscar (formerly Best Foreign Language Film) and the first film ever to be nominated in Best International Feature and Best Documentary Feature in the same year, Honeyland was a fine place to start and an interesting jumping off point.
Likely to be referred to less eloquently as the Macedonian Bee Keeper Movie, Honeyland follows Hatidze Muratova, a beekeeper in northern Macedonia that cares for her ailing mother while earning a living cultivating honey from her wild bees. Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov provide no narration or text to introduce audiences to Hatidze or her world; we’re just dropped into her daily routines and interactions with her mother, neighbors, and denizens of the city market. With skin grown tough from the exposure to the harsh elements of the Macedonian climate and other key indicators that show up physically and emotionally suggesting she grew up largely fending for herself, Hatidze is still worldly-wise even though it’s unlikely she’s rarely traveled outside her small village.
The arrival of a family who set-up shop next to Hatidze and her mother is at first a welcome change of pace for the women. Instead of being isolated, they now have two adults and multiple children running around, not to mention the animals they brought with and the cows they intend to breed and use for milk. Hatidze and the patriarch Hussein form a neighborly friendship, with Hatidze eventually giving the man advice on how to start his own bee business, an act of kindness that will come back to sting her in more ways than one. We’re not quite sure where Hussein has come from with his family but you soon get the impression they wore out their welcome because it isn’t long before the household runs amok, threatening to upset the delicate balance Hatidze has maintained for so long.
It’s reassuring to see that two separate branches of The Academy voted Honeyland into the Top 5 movies of the year in very different categories…but it really does have its feet planted firmly in both genres. On one hand, it’s a striking representation of a slice-of-life documentary in that it brings audiences from another part of the globe to a population most don’t know about. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed the bits and pieces of culture that are represented. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Kotevska and Stefanov deliberately attempted to create as remote of a location as possible so the film would have a “this could be anywhere” feel to it…and it works quite well. Watching Hatidze and her neighbors suffer setbacks is difficult and one thinks how hard it must be for the filmmakers to sit back and watch these painful moments occur and not interfere.
I can also see how the documentary auteurs in charge of selecting the nominees found their way to recognizing Honeyland. There were key moments and some interesting twits that felt like plot points out of a pre-planned movie, with villains both unintentional and rogue who pop in to cause trouble. If I hadn’t known this was a documentary, I may have easily been convinced this was a straight narrative feature in a foreign language. Though it starts a little slowly, I’d urge you to stick with it because the action takes a bit of time to settle in and you may find yourself wondering what all the hype was about…yet there’s a tipping point where you realize just how involved you’ve become in the lives of these people halfway across the world.
I wish as many people that line up to see the nearly three hour Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood would also take the 86 minutes to watch Honeyland but I’m realistic enough to know that not even 1/10 of those watching that (also excellent) Quentin Tarantino flick will take this journey. Still, no matter where Honeyland finishes at the end of the Oscars telecast, I know that it accomplished what few films can really do anymore – take you somewhere real that is completely foreign and open your eyes to a new experience. That’s something to create buzz about.