‘Honeyland’ sweetens the deal on documentaries

Scott Powell

Editor’s note: This film review may contain spoilers.

The hallmark of a quality documentary lies in its ability to make you forget that you are watching a documentary. The ability to weave together raw footage in such a way that narrative arc, drama and suspense become the driving force, as opposed to the facts and the cause that the documentary presents, is a rare and valuable talent. 

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Honeyland,” the star of this year’s Sundance Film Festival documentary selection, does exactly this, presenting a poignant, thoughtful and visually stunning glimpse into rural life in the Macedonian mountain ranges.

The film follows Hatidze Muratova, a middle-aged beekeeper with wit and personality as vibrant as her canary yellow top, as she tries to maintain her footing in a world, region and lifestyle that are quickly crumbling around her.

“It’s a classic tale of individual vs. industry and man vs. machine, but with a unique twist of heart and neighborly love that one rarely finds in stories of its type.”

Muratova spent her life harvesting honey and caring for her elderly mother in a mountain shack far away from the noise and confusion of the urban world, but her world is turned upside down when a young family of industrial farmers moves into the plot of land beside hers.

It’s a classic tale of individual vs. industry and man vs. machine, but with a unique twist of heart and neighborly love that one rarely finds in stories of its type. That’s what makes it beautiful. It’s not a battle between two mutually exclusive forces trying to gain control over one another for the sake of their own fleeting cause. It’s a cooperative effort at cohabitation.

Muratova does not attempt to undermine her neighbors in any way. She is not out to destroy them, nor they her. Rather, their mission throughout the film is to gain a common understanding: to learn how they can live together on this rocky little plot of land in harmony.

It’s a pleasant concept and a beautiful story that takes the viewer on a gripping emotional rollercoaster. Then, it dumps all their feelings straight into a blender set to high, ending with a sudden and utterly miserable twist of fate wherein Muratova’s mother dies, and the new neighbors lose the bulk of their cattle herd to maltreatment and disease.

The end. Roll credits. Bravo?

It’s a puzzling conclusion for sure and one that is difficult to make heads or tails out of. There’s certainly a place for fatalism in the movies. The problem is that either the movie needs to be perpetually building to its bleak, fatalist conclusion throughout, or it needs to somehow offer some indication of hope — if not for the characters themselves, at least for the world they are trying to preserve through their actions. “Honeyland” doesn’t quite capture this. 

Granted, it is a documentary, so it’s not as if the fate of these characters or their reactions to their situations was something the filmmakers had any control of.

Yet, the fact that it ends with such a sudden, depressing, unredeemable turn does make you wonder what it was that the filmmakers were trying to capture. What feeling, emotion or sense of purpose were they attempting to instill in their audience through Muratova’s story?

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Perhaps there was none. Perhaps it was simply meant to be a presentation of life in all of its seemingly chaotic and purposeless confusion.

“Honeyland” is playing at The Lyric Cinema

Or perhaps this was simply a snapshot of a now deceased era of human history: a final glimpse into a world that simply is no more. If this is the case, it seems the film could have done better to sow the seeds for this bleakness earlier on.

Wrenching the audience out of the hopeful, inspiring tone that had been developed throughout and into the existential catastrophe at the end of the film throws off the balance and flow of the story, leaving the audience with neither hope nor melancholy to chew on as they leave, but rather a jarring sense of dread and unease.

The editing of the film is exquisite beyond compare, with each cut brilliantly flowing into the next. What “Honeyland” does particularly well is ending each cut with a question, with something that makes the audience begin to think and wonder about what is coming next before it is even presented to them.

This is one of the key elements that contributes to the film’s beautiful narrative and causes it to come off more like a feature than a documentary. Its shots are edited based on their rhythm, not merely the information they convey.

Documentaries can be a slog. Too often they become so focused on the facts, they lose their heart. “Honeyland,” however, presents audiences with a gripping, dramatic and brilliantly paced narrative full of heart, heartache, stunning visuals and unforgettable characters. It is a sweet, sad and striking cinematic feat that beautifully transcends the pitfalls that so often plagues its designated format.

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.