December 28, 2019 – This haunting documentary about a woman described as the last beekeeper of wild bees in Europe finds her rural village invaded and overrun by a family that overtaxes the fragile environment of Northern Macedonia with a bumbling commercial agriculture operation.
The central character of this documentary is Hatidze Muratova, who, along with her elderly ailing mother, Nazife Muratova, are the only remaining residents of an isolated mountain village, Bekirlija in Northern Macedonia. Hatidze makes a living by harvesting honey from wild bees. She sells honey in nearby towns and cities, including Skopje, the capital, some 25 miles away, by foot and by bus. There are no developed roads to Bekirlija.
Hatidze lives in an area that has been largely forgotten since the 1950s. There is little water or vegetation in this area, making it unsuitable for farming, but through careful husbandry and marketing, Hatidze has been able to make a modest living by collecting and selling wild honey, as generations before her have done. But she is the last of her kind. She and her mother, Yuruks of Oghuz Turkic descent, speak an old Turkish dialect from the old Ottoman Empire which is quite different from modern Turkish.
The first part of the film follows Hatidze as she hikes treacherous, steep mountain trails to collect honey and bee hives. She transplants bee colonies into her village. Remarkably, she wears little protection against bee stings, but seems to get along with her bees just fine. She even sings to them.
One day, a kind of caravan rolls into the village, a large family, Hussein Sam and Ljutvie Sam and their seven children, along with a herd of cattle. At first, Hatidze and the new family get along well. Hatidze seems to get along with the children especially well, but after a time, there is conflict.
Hussein sees that Hatidze is making money from bees, so he decides to go into the honey business too, setting up a commercial beekeeping operation, with advice from Hatidze. She advises him against harvesting more than half the honey from his hives, which would cause the hungry bees will invade her own hives for their honey if they don't have enough to survive the winter.
Hussein does end up harvesting too much honey from his hives. His bees raid Hatidze's hives, killing her bees. Hussein and a friend also cut down another beehive that Hatidze had moved to a tree. Hatidze and her mother are bitter about the irresponsible ways of the newcomers and wish them ill. Nazife says, “May God burn their livers!”
One of Hussein's sons, I believe his name is Mustafah (hard to tell from the subtitles) has a particular affinity for beekeeping and for Hatidze. He opposes his father's way of doing things, recognizing that Hatidze is the expert when it comes to beekeeping. Jealous, and irritated by his son's opposition to his beekeeping methods, Hussein forbids his son to visit Hatidze, but he visits her anyway. He hikes with her and helps her harvest honey from wild bees.
In one remarkable scene in a cave, sitting by a fire. Mustafah asks Hatidze why she doesn't leave Bekirlija. She says, “If I'd had a son like you, things would have been different, but I don't.” There are many touching scenes in the film between Hatidze and her ailing, bedridden mother. During a hard winter, Hatidze speaks to her mother about the coming spring. Her mother replies “Is there spring? Too many winters have passed.”
Hussein's unsustainable beekeeping and ranching practices catch up with him. The bees are gone, his calves die off, and he and his family pack up and leave Bekirlija, leaving Hatidze alone. It didn't look to me like Hussein knew much about livestock or bees, even though he considers himself an expert in both. He blames others for his own failures and takes no responsibility for what happens to Hatidze's bees.
Filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov set out to make a simple documentary about a beekeeper, but after three years and 400 hours of filming, they came up with something a lot more profound and relevant. This is a film that vividly illustrates a universal truth about people's relationships to each other and to nature. When they approached Hatidze about this film, Hatidze was surprisingly willing to cooperate.
Tamara Kotevska said, “For her (Hatidze) we were fulfilling this dream (she had long dreamed that her story would be told) and she was totally open to us. She wanted to tell her story because she realized she was the last generation to live this way.” The filmmakers had intimate access to both Hatidze and Hussein and his family. This access results in a film that delves deep into the lives of the people in this film.
The film is beautifully shot, including some remarkable scenes filmed under difficult circumstances in very rugged locations. This is one of the year's best documentary films. It rates an A.
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