ONE EXCEPTIONALLY CLEAR day, when living in Tuscany, I spotted the Duomo in Florence, 23 kms away.
This was from the village of Bacchereto in the hills above Prato, where four of us (all expatriates) opened the Cantina di Toia restaurant for the Tesi family.
From Bacchereto, we often popped into Florence, so that I was surprised when a neighbour asked, as we stood admiring the cupola in the distance: “What’s it like?”
Old enough to have a teenage daughter, she had never visited her regional capital, a 40-minute drive away.
This was admittedly some decades ago, when traditional village life, even in sophisticated central Italy, still surprised an outsider like me.
Living in a former watermill near Radda-in-Chianti (SI) through the previous year had been eye-opening. One afternoon, we returned down the rocky, ancient Roman road to to find the locals trailing what looked like long streamers down the stream and under the bridge.
They were running water through pig intestines to prepare them for sausage and salami casings – an old trick, presumably thousands of years old.
The groundedness of village life, especially its food, contrasted with the “One Continuous Picnic” back home (becoming the title of my gastronomic history of Australia). Industrial food had to be portable, like a picnic, as well as profitable.
I was reminded of this seeing Honeyland the other evening. The New York Times’ usually reliable reviewer, A.O. Scott, rated the movie his best for 2019. It scores 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Award successes have included Oscar nominations for both “Best Documentary Feature” and “Best International Feature Film”.
Honeyland is a North Macedonian documentary about a woman who survives with her aged mother in a ruined stone village by collecting wild honey from hives in rocks and tree trunks. That’s the good bit. (For I would have walked out of the cinema, if not for sitting next to the family beekeeper.)
I have not found one review less than enthusiastic, and so how to explain my reaction?
Film critics are taken with the blend of hardship and beauty. What did they expect? They learn Hatidze’s father had prevented her marrying to retain a daughter for help in old age. As if many women are not still having to do that!
Reviewers also seem pathetically grateful for the environmental message. Breaking into the tranquillity of the deserted landscape, a family of seasonal herders arrive in their clattering old truck and caravan. With seven rowdy children, they prove unbelievably brutal and ignorant. Count the bee stings!
The family decide to bring in some hives for short-term exploitation. Rather than follow our heroine’s wisdom (only take half the honey, and leave half for the bees to survive the winter), they rip the bees off, so the commercial hives then have to rob from the wild ones. The men chainsaw a tree trunk in search of a wild hive’s bounty.
Besides the striking landscape, and Hatidze’s charming steadiness, the movie is slow, simplistic, and, I have to add, nasty. The makers worked to become the “invisible observers” of “direct cinema”, editing out any sign of camera awareness. Likewise, they never intervened in fights and disasters, so that we could think we witness the unvarnished truth.
According to co-director Tamara Kotevska, their bee-handler “wanted to tell her story because she realized she was the last generation to live this way”.
On the other hand: “Hussein’s family represents the capitalist world, of wanting to take as many resources as you can so you, personally, will thrive – not thinking about how this will impact the next generation.” The family went along with the filming, Kotevaska suggested, for the company provided by the small crew’s frequent visits.
As an outsider, I felt like I was intruding on them. You feel ashamed in some situations; you don’t know if you have a right to be there for their family argument. But you keep shooting.
The big-city intruders did not even speak the same language as those they filmed. The two women and nomadic family are remnants of the Ottoman Turkish era in a bewildering succession of rulers and migrations that make up the Republic of North Macedonia (which only gained independence in 1991, and that name in February 2019).
Along with that, the “documentary” is, I fear, something of a con. How amazing to introduce us to, as claimed unequivocally in the movie’s logline, “the last female wild beekeeper in Europe”.
Wasn’t it fortuitous that they just happened to be filming when the seasonal visitors just happened to decide to bring in some hives…
The Honeyland director explained fabrication:
We started editing while we were still shooting … We were able to say: “Alright, what are we missing here? We’re missing scenes of the relationship with the children.” So we would go, find more times, focus on the relationship with them, or their conflicts at home. Different aspects.
Perhaps I was expecting too much, and perhaps I became suspicious too quickly, but take a look yourself. (For all the critical acclaim, it is yet to gross $1m.)
Bees have also starred recently in: Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us? (2010); More than Honey (2012); Il Tempo delle api (2017); Tell it to the Bees (2019); and, last but not least, The Wonders [Le Meraviglie] (2014).
The Wonders rates 96% RT approval, and won the 2014 Palme D’Or at Cannes. This time, I’m with the positive responses.
Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher follows the family of a former German hippy now beekeeping in Tuscany. Family life buzzes around the bees, and vice versa, and meets cruel modernity. But this time it’s fiction, which enables the audience to get involved, while keeping its distance. The movie is somewhat autobiographical, too, because Rohrwacher and her actor-sister Alba Rohrwacher grew up in such a family.
I came to Alice Rohrwacher’s work through her mysterious Happy as Lazzaro [Lazzaro Felice] (2018), which, again, pits tradition against modernity. This one shows nastiness even more thoroughly than Honeyland, but this movie-making is a joy.
The North Macedonian documentarians wanted their manipulative literalness and invasive exploitation to be invisible. By contrast, the creative sophistication of Rohrwacher puts the badness of late modernity up on the screen, and its wonders.