×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Honeyland’

Macedonian docmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska make a visually poetic debut with this stark, wistful portrait of a lone rural beekeeper.

Director:
Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska
With:
Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam

1 hour 25 minutes

The opening frames of “Honeyland” are so rustically sumptuous that you wonder, for a second, if they’ve somehow been art-directed. Elegantly dressed in a vivid ochre blouse and emerald headscarf, captured in long shot as she nimbly wends her way through a craggy but spectacular Balkan landscape, careworn middle-aged beekeeper Hatidze Muratova heads to check on her remote, hidden colony of bees — delicately extracting a dripping wedge of honeycomb the exact saturated shade as her outfit. With man and nature so exquisitely coordinated, it’s as if Hatidze herself has grown from the same rocky land, and in a sense, she has. Scraping by with her ailing mother Nazife on a tiny, electricity-free smallholding in an otherwise unpopulated Macedonian mountain settlement, Hatidze has known no other life, and has certainly seen more bees than people in her time.

In Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s painstaking observational documentary, everything from the honey upwards is organic. Shot over three years, with no voiceover or interviews to lead the narrative, “Honeyland” begins as a calm, captured-in-amber character study, before stumbling upon another, more conflict-driven story altogether — as younger interlopers on the land threaten not just Hatidze’s solitude but her very livelihood with their newer, less nature-conscious farming methods. As a plain environmental allegory blossoms without contrivance from the cracks, Stefanov and Kotevska’s ravishingly shot debut accrues a subtle power that will be felt by patient festival audiences, though only refined boutique distributors need apply.

Hatidze remains the film’s compelling center even as stakes and circumstances shift around her. A resilient grafter with a gentle sense of humor that survives her calloused demeanor, she’s the kind of subject who’s fascinating to watch even when doing nothing at all — which admittedly isn’t often, given her grinding routine of working the land, harvesting the honey, trekking to distant Skopje to sell her sweet, sticky wares, and returning to care for the half-blind, 85-year-old Nazife. (“I’m not dying, I’m just making your life misery,” the old woman taunts.) Shooting often by scant candlelight, the filmmakers capture the claustrophobic intimacy of a terse mother-daughter relationship, in which tough love is expressed through provision, not terms of endearment.

Contentedly independent the never-married Hatidze may be, but that’s not to say she’s averse to other people’s company. So when itinerant Turkish couple Hussein and Ljutvie noisily set up their caravan on an adjacent lot, with seven young children in tow, Hatidze initially welcomes them with neighborly cheeriness: The rowdy kids, in particular, take to her, while she’s happy to offer advice when Hussein takes an interest in her beekeeping enterprise. But where her honey business is founded on a golden “take half and leave half” rule — a quota that retains enough honey for the bees themselves to live on — Hussein has no time for such restraint. Before long, his greedier, more profit-minded approach clashes bitterly with Hatidze’s; though he’s hardly an industry, his ineffective business model stands in for a world of capitalist commerce, threatening the delicate ecosystem into which Hatidze has sensitively integrated herself.

There’s humor in this battle of wills, some of it via Nazife’s surprisingly caustic interjections: “May God burn their livers,” she moans as the family’s shrill squabbling is heard from across the field. Stefanov and Kotevska aren’t quite as unsympathetic to the intruders’ woes, spending a generous amount of time observing their desperate, fractious familial bond: Misguided and peace-disturbing as his methods are, Hussein, too, is just trying to get by. The line between victim and villain is a fine one here — Hatidze herself regards it with shrugging frustration — and that ambiguity gives “Honeyland” an unexpectedly rich seam of moral tension.

Under the gilded gaze of cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma, however, this magnificent landscape remains stoically undisturbed by human drama. The camera doesn’t unduly prettify Hatidze’s surroundings, but it’s hard not to occasionally gasp at its veritable khaki rainbow of grass, sand and stone: tintedly different from season to season, but with ancient, stony textures fixed in place. The implacability of this deserted, wind-kissed environment makes Hatidze and Nazife’s looming mortality all the more poignant: It’s hard not to wonder if someone else will pick over these winding mountainside paths once their time comes. Perhaps, just perhaps, the bees will eventually get to keep both halves of the honey.

Popular on Variety

Sundance Film Review: 'Honeyland'

Reviewed online, London, Jan. 30, 2019. (In Sundance Film Festival — World Cinema Documentary Competition.) Running time: 85 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Macedonia) A Trice Films presentation. (International sales: Submarine, New York.) Producers: Ljubomir Stefanov, Atanas Georgiev.

Crew: Camera (color): Fejmi Daut, Samir Ljuma. Editor: Atanas Georgiev. Music: Foltin.

With: Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam, Mustafa Sam.

More Film

  • Jason Lei Howden, Samara Weaving and

    Daniel Radcliffe On Acting With Weapons Nailed To Your Hands

    How did “Guns Akimbo” director and writer Jason Lei Howden convince Daniel Radcliffe to play a character with guns nailed to his hands? Easy, he sent him the script. Radcliffe joined Howden and “Ready or Not’s” breakout star Samara Weaving in the Variety’s Toronto Film Festival studio, presented by AT&T to talk the limits of [...]

  • Box Office: It Chapter Two Maintains

    Box Office: 'It: Chapter Two' Continues International Reign With $47 Million

    Pennywise’s reign of terror hasn’t wavered: Warner Bros.’ “It Chapter Two” maintained first place on box office charts, led by another strong showing overseas. The sequel, based on Stephen King’s horror novel, generated another $47 million at the international box office for a foreign tally of $169 million. After two weeks of release, “It Chapter [...]

  • First still from the set of

    Taika Waititi’s 'Jojo Rabbit' Wins Top Prize at Toronto Film Festival Awards

    Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” has won the coveted People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The honor positions the film for a potential Oscar run and bolsters its awards chances. That’s good news for Fox Searchlight, which must have been disappointed by the lackluster critical reception for the movie, a dark comedy [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Racks Up Solid $33 Million Debut, 'Goldfinch' Bombs

    “Hustlers” rolled in the Benjamins this weekend, collecting $33.2 million when it debuted in 3,250 North American theaters. Boosted by rave reviews and stellar word of mouth, “Hustlers” beat expectations and now ranks as the best start for an STX film, along with the biggest live-action opening weekend for stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. [...]

  • German Cinema Is Diverse, But Is

    German Cinema Is Varied, But Is It Too Risk Averse?

    One of the strengths of German cinema is its diversity, says Simone Baumann, managing director of the national film promotion agency German Films. As well as the three films at Toronto directed by female German helmers, there was also German filmmaker Thomas Heise’s documentary film essay “Heimat Is a Space in Time.” Then there were [...]

  • Female Filmmakers in Germany Make Progress

    Female Filmmakers Surge Forward in Germany, But Still Face Obstacles

    Four feature films by German filmmakers screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and three of them were directed by women – Angela Schanelec’s “I Was at Home, But…,” winner of the Berlinale’s best director prize, Ina Weisse’s “The Audition,” and Katrin Gebbe’s “Pelican Blood,” the latter two both starring Nina Hoss. Germany’s Oscar entry this [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content