The 2019 - 2020 awards season has been quite the rollercoaster, but one of the most curious and consistent narratives is the undeniable buzz from the most unlikely of places: an 87-minute documentary from a tiny village in Macedonia. 'Honeyland' has been garnering unanimous praise for its ability to tell such a small-scale story while touching on its massive cultural and environmental implications, and while it certainly deserves the spotlight, this is the rare case of a documentary where its unique style is both to its benefit and its detriment.
The result of three years of filming and over 400 hours of footage, 'Honeyland' tells the story of Hatidze Muratova, a Macedonian/Turkish beekeeper desperately trying to cling to her current way of life and traditional beekeeping techniques, despite mounting capitalist pressures from rival beekeeper neighbours. The shots of her retrieving honeycomb on a cliff's edge with no safety precautions are reminiscent of the blood-pumping stress of last year's excellent 'Free Solo'. Muratova puts her blood, sweat and tears into her bees, leaving half of their honeycomb in order to ethically and sustainably harvest honey. Muratova's neighbours play the role of her moral foil, the consumerist-focused beekeepers whose processes endanger the creatures that they exploit. It's a classic case of humankind's obsessively suicidal tendencies, seemingly intent of destroying the natural order of the world we inhabit.
As visually stunning as 'Honeyland' is, my response to its filming style is regretfully cynical. The documentary feels more like a narrative film through the use of cinéma vérité, a technique that renders directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov as flies on the wall, simply letting the camera roll as Muratova goes about her business. Though hardly seeming like the type to play it up for the camera, one can't help but wonder how knowing there is a camera on her would affect how Muratova and others around her. It creates an unfortunate air of artificiality, but where other documentaries acknowledge the artifactuality by embracing the more common conventions of the genre, 'Honeyland' appears to be rejecting them. Ultimately, it makes for an experience that's aiming for something meaningful - and due to the nature of its subject matter, mostly achieves that - but unintentionally impedes its own success.
'Honeyland' is the rare case of a documentary where its unique style is both to its benefit and its detriment.
Despite my issues with its composition, 'Honeyland' is a thoughtful and compassionate exercise in exposing a lifestyle many have long ago abandoned, and one that deserves a place in the public consciousness. Muratova is only one woman, but her attempts to live an ethical life should be taken seriously by everyone that her story reaches.