Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s documentary Honeyland pulses with vividly observed detail, offering a patient, intimate, and complex portrait of a disappearing way of life. Its subject is Atidze, an old Macedonian woman who lives with her even older mother in a remote village without paved roads, electricity, or running water. When we first see her, in a series of breathtaking landscape shots that open the film, she calmly ambles across a vast field, climbs up a hill, and then carefully edges across a narrow ridge before stopping in front of an unassuming rock face. There, she gingerly pulls away some of the stone to reveal the most vibrant, sumptuous honeycomb you’ve ever seen.
It all feels less like the introduction to an ethnographic documentary than the opening to a pastoral novel, or perhaps a folktale. But Atidze is, in fact, a real person, and if she at first seems to be an almost too-perfect avatar of traditional living, the beauty of Honeyland is the way it allows us to get to know her as a complete human being. There’s an undeniable romance to Atidze’s lifestyle, her communion with nature and insulation from the hurly-burly of modern life that recalls that of the Argentine woodcutter in Lisandro Alonso’s minimalist pseudo-doc La Libertad. Atidze’s only modern technological convenience is a little transistor radio that can barely pick up a station until she builds a massive antenna for it.
But however idyllic Atidze’s life might seem when we see her chomping into a piece of fresh honeycomb or silhouetted against a picture-perfect sunset, there’s an underlying wistfulness to the film’s depiction of the woman. Atidze didn’t exactly choose to live in this forbidding place, caring for her sickly mother inside a small shack and scraping together a living by traveling to Skopje once a season to shop her honey to the sellers at farmers markets. On the contrary, in intimate scenes lit only by candlelight, Atidze reveals doubts about the trajectory of her life, wondering what might have been if she’d moved away or gotten married.
And yet, even in these scenes of struggle and questioning, Atidze exudes resilience, quiet wisdom, and gentle good humor—all of which are violently contrasted with a chaotic neighboring family, the Sams, whose short-sighted attempts to make a quick buck out of trades they don’t understand yield disastrous results. Headed by an incompetent, quick-to-anger patriarch, Ljutvie, who uses and abuses his sons as unpaid servants, the Sams represent a polar-opposite approach to life than Atidze’s, one that struggles against the world rather than learning to work with it. Fittingly, in contrast to the tender way Atidze is introduced, when we first meet the Sams, they’re desperately (and hilariously) trying to wrangle a rampaging herd of cattle as the animals terrorize the village. Later in the film, we’ll find that, thanks to Ljutvie’s incompetence, 50 of the cows have died.
The strained dynamic between the Atidze and the Sams echoes a larger global tension between sustainability and industrial exploitation. Whereas Atidze has an intuitive understanding of the ecology of the area, the Sams are interested only in extracting what is valuable to them. In one scene, Atidze chides Ljutvie for setting a tree on fire because it will burn the grass, thus leaving nothing for the bees to pollinate. Without straining to make a grand environmentalist statement, Honeyland manages to dramatize—simply, directly, and without sentimentalism or condescension—the importance of a holistic approach to agriculture. As the world continues to suffer ever-increasing mass die-offs of honeybee colonies, Stefanov and Kotevska’s film reminds us that there’s indeed a better way to interact with our planet—one rooted in patience, tradition, and a true respect for our surroundings.