It was a footnote to the Oscar nominations this year, but an intriguing one: A tiny little movie from North Macedonia became the first film ever nominated in both the documentary and foreign-language categories.
From very early in “Honeyland,” it’s clear why the voters were moved. Not only is this a distinctive study in character and location, it’s also beautifully shot.
Then the movie keeps going, and evolving, and suddenly it seems to be about everything in the world—a parable of the 21st century played out across a few acres of scrubby land in Eastern Europe.
We’re in rural Macedonia, where Hatidze Muratova lives in a couple of huts with her aged and bedridden mother. Hatidze is a beekeeper, tending her rustic hives and selling her artisanal honey in the city.
She is, obviously, closely connected to the land, although she also indulges in the vanity of spending some of her honey earnings on hair dye.
Her philosophy about the bees is “Half for you, half for me.” She leaves lots of honey behind, because she doesn’t want her bee colonies to collapse.
You watch these scenes and marvel at how filmmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska achieved the level of intimacy they obviously have with their subjects. Had the film been only about this, it would be impressive.
Then the neighbors move in.
Hatidze’s quiet world is disrupted by a nomadic family called the Sams, a sprawling clan who bring their trailer (and herd of grazing cattle) and set up camp nearby. The family’s utterly incompetent patriarch gets interested in the way Hatidze seems to be making money from bees, and she helps him learn the craft.
If you recall the adage that no good deed goes unpunished, you might guess where this is going. But “Honeyland” is amazing in the way it brings to life a human dilemma: between people who have developed a way of getting along with the world that makes life sustainable, and people who will cash in for short-term profit and exterminate the source of their own income — at which point they move along to the next thing to destroy.
All of this is done without narration or heavy-handed emphasis. The story unfolds in a way that’s sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes hard to watch. So many documentaries labor to find something uplifting to say; this one just lays it all out there for us.
Nice postscript, too: The prize money from various film festivals (including two awards at last year’s Sundance) have allowed the filmmakers to buy a new house for Hatidze. There may be another movie waiting to happen there.
“Honeyland” (3½ stars)
An Oscar nominee in both the documentary and foreign-language categories, this is an immersive look at the life of a beekeeper in rural Macedonia. Which would be interesting by itself, but when new neighbors move nearby, the film turns into an amazing parable of 21st century attitudes and disasters. In Macedonian and Turkish, with English subtitles.
Rating: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter
Opening Friday: Grand Illusion