Look to the Bees

Filmmaker Alix Lambert on Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov's exquisitely beautiful and very timely documentary Honeyland.

High on a mountainside in the stunning landscape of Macedonia lives a solitary beekeeper named Hatidze Muratova.

In Honeyland, a vérité documentary directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov and beautifully shot by cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma, we are introduced to Hatidze’s struggles and perambulations. We admire her knowledge and practice of the dying art/science of wild beekeeping. When she is not with her bees, Hatidze cares for her aging mother, who has problems with her vision, her hearing, and an open wound on her face that needs constant dressing, and who relies greatly on her unmarried daughter.

As you’ve no doubt read, or heard someone talk about, bees are disappearing and no one knows why.

About a year ago I saw that 30,000 bees had swarmed a hot dog vending cart in Times Square. They appeared from nowhere, or likely from somewhere, but they seemed to have appeared from nowhere. With thoughts of The Birds in my head, I found it difficult not to project that these bees have something to tell us, that they were making a point. I also learned that the New York City police department has someone equipped with a vacuum to come suck up the bees, thousands at a time. As the bees were being sucked away, the awning of the cart they had descended on became visible. The text on the awning reads: U.S. GOV’T. INSPECTED.

I think about that video and the bee-hot-dog-cart-coup frequently.

I thought about it while I was watching Hatidze hike for hours to the hives she shares with her bees. She is a bee whisperer. On some days, Hatidze treks into town to sell her honey and pick up hair dye. She selects the chestnut color she is looking for. She has a specific shade in mind. She exchanges a few words and pleasantries with the vendors in town, and lays out the merits of her honey as the best quality honey there is.

Back home, she applies her hair dye while talking with her mother. Other than her mother and the people she meets in town, she leads an unaccompanied life. So, when a couple and their many children move next door, Hatidze initially welcomes the prospect of companionship. That embrace doesn’t last long, as things quickly take a turn for the worse. The neighbors have aspirations to compete in the honey market themselves. Hussein, the father of the family, embraces a more aggressive, profit-hunting approach that threatens Hatidze’s survival. When the balance of things is upended by this newly arrived family, we are confronted with issues of greed, modernity and environmental threat.

About a week ago, Rachel Maddow ran a segment on bees. It opened with a clip of Obama reading from Where the Wild Things Are to a group of children, when suddenly a bunch of bees swarm the area. Obama, smiling, tells the children, “Bees are good! They won’t land on you.” The children replying, “They sting! They’re scary!” Chaos erupts as the children squeal and Obama laughs. He finally tries to regain order by saying, “Hold on, you guys are Wild Things, you’re not supposed to be afraid of bees.” Maddow goes on to explain the efforts Obama went to in addressing the declining bee population, and the importance of that effort due to the fact that bees are integral to “75 percent of the world’s food crops” Not surprisingly, she then tells us that the Trump administration has gutted all work in this area and is “suspending its bee survey due to budget constraints.” and approving the introduction of “highly toxic” pesticides.

Honeyland is a film that washed over me in the best possible sense, the lack of narration allowing me to move through the days with Hatidze, frequently accompanied by her singing, and to get lost in the mysteries of her world.

Honeyland is at once a meditation, a story, a warning, and a prayer. It is a reminder of the importance of protecting our environment and our hearts against avarice. In these dark days when I find myself looking for meaning and respite everywhere, Honeyland provided both. It’s a long way from Macedonia to Times Square – but some problems remain the same.

Look to the bees.

Alix Lambert is a filmmaker, photographer and writer living in NYC. Her films include the Independent Spirit Award-nominated The Mark of Cain, Bayou Blue and Mentor, and she has also directed shorts and web series. She is currently in production on Goodbye, Fat Larry. Lambert is the author of four books: Mastering The Melon, The Silencing, Russian Prison Tattoos and Crime. Learn more about her work here.