Honeyland, directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, was the most-awarded film at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and for good reason. Positioning itself as one of the movies to beat for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, this is one of the most effective and compelling nature documentaries of all time.
One of the reasons that this film is so effective is that it takes a highly narrative approach. The fly-on-the-wall (or perhaps, more accurately, bee-on-the-wall) style lends itself perfectly to this movie, as it allows us to get involved in the story naturalistically. The filmmakers didn’t need to use interviews to convey the story, and it works surprisingly well.
The film explores the conflict that arises between two neighbors: Hatidze Muratova, the last female beekeeper in Europe who uses ancient methods to preserve the balance of nature, and a nomadic family who decides to practice beekeeping with less sustainable methods, wreaking havoc on the entire ecosystem and, in turn, Muratova’s livelihood.
With this, the movie is able to provide commentary on the issues of sustainability and our responsibility as a citizen of the world. That said, the film does make sure to give a voice to the opposing viewpoint of the Sam family, whose irresponsible practices are so harmful. In their eyes, they are doing what they are doing in order to survive. Although the movie strongly supports Muratova’s stance, it does not villainize the Sam family, but rather, portrays them as people who made a mistake.
Muratova makes for an extremely sympathetic subject. Her story as the last female beekeeper in Europe is truly extraordinary and inspiring, but the filmmakers develop her even further through her relationships with other players in the film. Some of the most compelling moments are those in which Muratova is interacting with the Sams’ young boy who hopes to learn from her. The mentorship that forms between them despite their families’ rivalry is touching.
The movie also hits surprisingly hard on an emotional level. Some of the things that the Sam family does are truly horrifying and difficult to watch. Not only do they have a toxic relationship with the organisms which they cultivate — they are also destroying their relationship from within. Some of the confrontations between the patriarch of the family and his son are heartbreaking.
Additionally, the film is absolutely beautiful to watch. The cinematography is stunning throughout, especially the wide shots that show the massive beauty of nature. It is equally awe-inspiring to get up close and personal with the bees as the beekeepers are working. The editing is phenomenal too, giving the movie its unique narrative rhythm.
The only issue with the film is that it starts off a bit slowly. Admittedly, it does take a bit too long to introduce the story. However, once the conflict begins, the movie draws you in more than you would ever expect. Never does the film feel like it is preaching a message. Instead, that message comes as the natural result of the portrayal of the conflict.
Honeyland is certainly one of the best documentaries of the year so far. If it wasn’t the middle of blockbuster season, this would be deserving of a release on large format screens. You should still see this movie at all costs, though, as it is absolutely phenomenal.
Honeyland is now playing in theaters.