The opening scenes of “Honeyland,” a captivating and, finally, devastating documentary from the directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, are wondrous to behold. With practiced expertise, a middle-aged beekeeper named Hatidze makes her way along a rocky cliff and pulls aside a few stones to reveal row after precious row of golden honeycomb, shimmering like treasure buried in the mountainside. As rigorously observed as the movie is in the venerable tradition of direct cinema, in these moments, it also takes on the stirring quality of an ancient folk tale or myth.
Hatidze makes it all look startlingly easy, in ways that she and other skilled beekeepers would likely shrug off as insignificant, even as their methods remain reliable generators of tension and awe in the movies. She handles the honeycomb with bare hands and not a moment’s hesitation, and the bees seem thoroughly unagitated by her presence. Her humane, ecologically sound methods are rooted in traditions that seem as old and durable as the majestically photographed Macedonian landscape that surrounds her.
Back down on terra firma, Hatidze keeps a colony of her own in the remote, barely inhabited mountain settlement where she lives. The honey that she extracts, bottles and sells at a market in the distant city of Skopje earns just enough for her to take care of her 85-year-old mother, Nazife, who is blind and bedridden. The scenes of them together in their small hut, shot with extraordinary candlelit intimacy, speak movingly to their mutual devotion as well as their resourcefulness. They are accustomed to making the most of very little.
That philosophy extends to the way Hatidze treats her bees, whose survival, she knows, is closely tied to her own. “Take half, leave half” is an instruction she repeatedly mutters as she carefully removes what she needs (and nothing more), until the words begin to sound like an incantation. “Honeyland,” which won three awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (including the top prize for international documentaries), is first and foremost a graceful evocation of interspecies coexistence, of lives lived in delicate balance with the natural world.
But it also becomes something more: a harrowing portrait of how quickly and easily that balance can fall apart. Kotevska and Stefanov spent three years filming Hatidze and ended up whittling down this 85-minute documentary from more than 400 hours of footage. The trust that they cultivated with their subject is more than apparent, and they are rewarded for their patience with a surfeit of dramatic incident. In Hatidze’s more unguarded moments, she notes her lingering regret that she never married or had a child — an acknowledgment that takes on a layer of irony when a large Turkish family takes up residence in a nearby lot, with small children and large animals in tow.
The heretofore sedate, steady camerawork by Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma turns suddenly volatile in clamorous scenes of the kids playing, quarreling and aggressively handling each other and the livestock. But some of the kids also befriend Hatidze, who, despite the noise and chaos, responds to her new neighbors with a warmth and an openness that feel entirely unfeigned. She also willingly shares some of her artisanal secrets with their cash-strapped paterfamilias, Hussein, who decides to try his hand at beekeeping. The results are, to say the least, disastrous. “Take half, leave half” is not a business model that everyone has the patience to follow.
Without ever departing from its gently observational bee-on-the-wall format, “Honeyland” can be a film of startling violence — viscerally so, in the occasional nerve-jangling shot of a toddler getting stung by a bee. But the more lasting violence that Kotevska and Stefanov capture is ethical and environmental. This is hardly the first documentary to sound the apicultural alarm (2009’s excellent “Colony” comes to mind), and others have taken a broader, more expository view of the grim planetary implications of colony collapse. But few have offered such an intimately infuriating, methodically detailed allegory of the earth’s wonders being ravaged by the consequences of human greed.
The movie doesn’t demonize Hussein for his clumsy inexperience or his eagerness to make a quick buck; the desperation of his family’s circumstances is plain enough to see. But if “Honeyland” refuses the convenience of easy villainy, it is no great leap to see Hatidze as quietly heroic. Whether trudging through snow or climbing back up that mountainside at film’s end, she is a principled and compassionate custodian, one of the last of a dying breed. This lovely, heartrending movie leaves you marveling at her history and thinking anxiously for her future — and wondering, perhaps, why her example of basic decency has become so endangered.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Starts July 26, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles