Hatidze’s skinny middle-aged frame is almost swallowed up by the jagged expanse of rural Macedonia as she scrapes her way across the landscape. The untamed, harsh terrain stretches up into the mountains, which this tiny figure claws her way along using the most precarious and fragile nooks and crannies.
Resolute and steady, she reaches a crevice up high, obscured by wild grass, and settles herself delicately in her tenuous vantage point. Reaching gingerly, she peels a stone away to reveal the humble buzz of her hidden treasure – a beehive.
Kotevska Tamara and Ljubomir Stefanov’s Honeyland concerns itself deeply with the small and defiant ones as they eke out a life amid the massive and unknowable, represented keenly in the struggles of Hatidze and her tiny companions. A lifelong beekeeper, she farms honey from the hives dotted around her isolated village – the only occupants of which initially appear to be Hatidze, her ailing, elderly mother and their winged workers.
Early on, the monotonous and steady peace of their life is interrupted by the arrival of a new family next door, comprising husband, wife and seven unruly children. What had been natural and predictable becomes unsettled but undeniably more vibrant as the family sets up its own, more industrious beekeeping operation, as well as moving in cattle and resources to farm the land in earnest. This new equilibrium is not quite as disturbing as it initially appears, as Tamara and Stefanov patiently establish the two households’ dichotomy through a collage-like run of chaotic, humorous and tender images and incidents that define life in this strange pocket of civilisation.
Largely a freeform exercise, Honeyland slowly transitions into a more coherent narrative as the capitalist demands of a local wholesaler push the father of the new family to adopt more reckless and harmful practices in order to produce more honey. The consequences are felt across the full cast of subjects, but it is Hatidze whose life takes the full brunt of this desperate man’s hubris.
With her soothing chants and the lively yellow of her favourite shirt, Hatidze is an imminently appealing and sympathetic protagonist whose humanity and empathy push back against the ardour she faces. Joking around with her mother, playing with the dogs and cats that roam the village and singing to her dwindling bees, her indomitable spirit gives this documentary packed with hardship and absurdity a bright centre to revolve around.
The directors’ regard Hatidze with reverence and respect, allowing her the space to feel the tragedy and confusion of her plight and to sit with her melancholy as her life is changed by forces she cannot control. By the end of the feature, the noise and confusion have subsided and the core of Honeyland is what remains – that tiny figure, resolute and sturdy against the vastness of her world, defiantly buzzing along.
Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 6-11 June. To see the full programme and to buy tickets visit sheffdocfest.com.
Rhys Handley | @RhysHandley2113