Honeyland film review

Today I went to see Honeyland, which was being shown at the Falmouth Poly cinema as part of the Cornwall film festival. It’s a documentary about a female beekeeper named Hatidze; she and her elderly mother are the last inhabitants left in their remote Macedonian village, eking out a living from the sweetness of honey.

Honeyland film - Hatidze beekeeping

Half for me, half for you

Any British beekeeper will be familiar with the bumper catalogues of beekeeping suppliers here, packed with every possible accessory you can think of. Hatidze’s equipment is a basic veil, a smoker fuelled by dry dung, plus some jars for her honey. Her ‘hives’ are cavities in walls or clifftops, with a removable stone in front as an entrance. To harvest she simply reaches in and pulls out vibrant yellow honey combs, brushing the bees off with her fingers. They seem remarkably placid – perhaps because her mantra is ‘half for me, half for you’, so she always leaves enough for them to survive the harsh winters.

Back at home, Hatidze’s mother is sick, spending her days lying in their home, only sitting up so that Hatidze can feed her small titbits of food – honey, or bananas, or watermelon. The two of them have an amusing relationship, with their bickering making the audience giggle at several points. To sell her honey Hatidze travels to the Macedonian capital Skopje, where we see her talent as a saleswoman, chattering away to the market traders. She returns with money, bananas, hair dye and a fan to keep the flies away from her mother.

New neighbours

Suddenly, unexpected noise comes into her life when a travelling family pulls up with their caravan and herd of cows. I never managed to count how many children they had until the end, when the credits revealed the total to be seven. “One kid a year!” their father Hussein says. Bigger toddlers hold smaller toddlers, smaller toddlers clutch kittens. Chickens cluck in and out of the caravan. Lean older boys of perhaps seven or eight help their constantly busy mother tie up cows for milking, getting hefty kicks in the process.

At first, Hatidze gets on well with her new neighbours, sharing brandy, music from her radio and her beekeeping expertise with them. Hussein becomes interested when she tells them how much her honey sells for, and soon we see trailers pulling up with wooden hives similar to the Nationals beekeepers here use. These bees are not so placid, but Hussein’s equipment is just as basic, so once the boxes are opened the whole family gets stung. Little children are running about screaming in pain, pulling bees out of their hair, while Hussein pulls the reluctant older boys out of the caravan to assist him in futile puffs of the smoker.

A lesson ignored

We see Hatidze warn Hussein that enough honey must be left for the bees, otherwise his bees will come and raid hers. But, under pressure from a local honey dealer to take more, and with so many mouths to feed, he doesn’t follow her advice. We see shots of bees fighting outside her hive entrances. Next, her colonies are dead. Hussein blames the losses on the weather.

With her only form of income gone, we see a distraught Hatidze crying to her mother. What will become of them both? Powerless to help, her mother can only sympathise – “May god burn their livers!”. Winter draws in and the wolves are very literally howling at the door. Yet it’s easy to empathise with Hussein and his family too – the money they got for their honey appears to be spent on nothing more luxurious than feeding the children. Still, as spring approaches, there may be some hope coming Hatidze’s way.

Even if you have no interest in beekeeping, I think you would still enjoy this film for its humour, the stunning views of the Macedonian mountains and the insights into rural life there. And for us beekeepers seeing the techniques used in traditional Macedonian beekeeping, including what seemed like some form of chanting and tanging to collect swarms, makes the film even more fascinating.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
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12 Responses to Honeyland film review

  1. disperser says:

    For its humor? Until you mentioned humor, I hadn’t associated the concept with your description of events.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      The humour is subtle – being a documentary it isn’t scripted of course, so it comes from the unexpected interactions between family members. Moments like Hatidze’s sweet looking old mother coming out with “May god burn their livers!” or Hatidze having to shout louder and louder at her mum to try and get her to hear. Other members of the audience were chuckling too, so it wasn’t just me… but maybe it wouldn’t amuse US audiences as much.

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    • disperser says:

      Not sure if I should feel slighted . . . subtle (often obscure) humor is almost my trademark.

      But, I’m referring to the story itself. I’m familiar with humor in dark times, but it’s still dark times. For the audience (me) the humor wouldn’t compensate for what seems a tragic story of people living precarious existences.

      But, I’ll withhold judgment until I watch it . . . which isn’t likely to happen.

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      • Emily Scott says:

        By ‘US audiences’ I didn’t mean you personally 🙂 It certainly does show people living in poverty and suffering adversity. But I think it’s possible to watch and appreciate both aspects, to enjoy the personalities of the characters. But yes, it’s no comedy.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Archie McLellan says:

    Hello Emily
    I’ve seen Honeyland too. It’s some months since I first saw the trailer, and when it came to the cinemas, I was devastated there wasn’t a showing near me. So I’ve now seen it on Amazon Prime and it’s a real gem. What I found astonishing was the unobtrusiveness of the filming. We glimpsed intimate moments, unrestrained behaviour, resilience, and pain – whether from bee stings or the harshness of life. Hatidze is a remarkable woman, certainly, but the film allowed us to feel for the traveller family, with all the difficulties they faced.
    Thanks for writing about it.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Yes, I would have believed it if we’d found out that these were professional actors as the events and unselfconsciousness of the families were so film-like, the film makers were lucky indeed in their subjects. No narrative or interviews needed, the film just shows us their lives.

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  3. Hi Emily,
    Thank you for bringing my attention to Honeyland. It will definitely be on my to watch list over Christmas.
    I am frequently humbled by the fact I keep bees for fun, any money I make from selling some honey or other hive product is a bonus, “beer” money. I’m fortunate to have a job which provides me with an income to support my family. Yet for many around the world selling honey and wax is life or death, educating their children, putting clothes on their backs.
    There are a couple of NGOs such as Bees Abroad (https://beesabroad.org.uk/) who help families, mainly in African countries, to stay above the poverty line through beekeeping. Perhaps we need to look closer to home in Europe as well?

    Simon

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    • Emily Scott says:

      I had the same feelings after seeing the film Simon, much as I care for my bees I am very grateful I don’t have the stress of my survival being dependent on theirs. I bought a few bits from Bees Abroad recently when they had a market stall at our Cornwall conference, they do great work. I’m not sure whether Hatidze has made any money from the documentary – hope the film makers will give her something from the profits.

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  4. Thank you for the interesting review. It seems a sad story but rural life in many countries must be very difficult. Amelia

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  5. Sounds interesting,I’ll look out for the film.

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