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.