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.
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.
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.