This year’s top documentary at Sundance is captivating visual poetry about a world in need of balance

By Bliss Bowen

Traditional beekeeper Hatidze Muratova is among the last of her kind in a desolate region of Macedonia

In Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s meditative, visually striking documentary “Honeyland,” Hatidze Muratova is often the lone moving figure as she walks dirt roads through desert mountains, valleys and snow. She’s no backpacking hiker but rather a wild beekeeper in a desolate region of Macedonia, where she inhabits a dilapidated stone hut with her blind, bedridden mother, Nazife, their dog Jackie and several cats. Barely 12 miles from the city, they subsist without electricity, running water, or community, like stranded netherworld survivors.

Friendly and illiterate, Hatidze carefully retrieves honeycombs from a cliffside hive. There’s crude visual harmony between the landscape’s pounded brown-gray palette and enchanting golden hues of honey, sun and afternoon haze as she later releases bees from a hive near her home, gently blowing some off her hand without getting stung as she sings to them. (Macedonian band Foltin’s acoustic score for those scenes is minimal and haunting.)

That harmony’s disrupted when new neighbors Hussein and Ljutvie Sam noisily lumber into view with a battered trailer, several filthy children and cows. Hatidze shows Hussein how to raise bees, which dine hungrily on honey she pours onto a stone while explaining, “One half for me, one half for you.” As she tells one vendor at the city market, she never feeds her bees sugar as other keepers do, and appreciative customers validate her traditional ways.

Hussein’s blinkered vision eyes a different gold as he bullies his bee-stung family into helping churn out more honey. “Who doesn’t want more?” he agrees with an opportunistic peddler in
a conversation that clearly represents unchecked capitalism. Strong-armed by the peddler, Hussein disregards Hatidze’s warning to leave half the honey for the bees, with fatal consequences for her hives and livelihood — thus earning the contempt of his son, who instinctively grasps Hatidze’s wisdom.

Dialogue’s in old Ottoman and Turkish, so the film’s subtitled, but its storytelling is primarily visual. There’s charm and unmistakable symbolism in singular moments like Hatidze playing with Hussein’s children while collecting water at the fountain; Nazife’s face delightedly fingering a laced fan; Hatidze and Hussein’s son creating “falling stars” with torches on a cave wall; Hatidze rescuing a turtle stranded in a dry stone trough; and Hatidze returning to the cliffs to pry loose and share a honeycomb with Jackie. It is winter, and she is the last of her wild beekeeping generation. “Honeyland” provokes thoughtful questions but no answers to her plight.

“Honeyland” opens Friday (July 26) at the Laemmle Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., on Friday, July 26; Call (310) 478-3836 or visit laemmle.com for tickets and show times.

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