Untangling Fiction and Reality in the Balkans
The award-winning documentary Honeyland sets out to offer a timeless environmental parable, but in the process it also explores misconceptions about the region’s culture and history.
December 17, 2020
Dec 17, 2020
21 Min read time
The award-winning documentary ‘Honeyland’ sets out to offer a timeless environmental parable, but in the process it also explores misconceptions about the region’s culture and history.
Though the documentary Honeyland purports to be an eighty-nine-minute celebration of its central character’s spirit and apicultural philosophy, we don’t learn much about the character’s actual life. Hatidze Muratova is middle-aged, speaks Turkish, and likes to sing. She lives in an abandoned village in Macedonia with her half-blind and bed-ridden mother, Nazife, alone but for her scrawny dog Jackie, some stray cats, and millions of bees. Some of her hives are archaic wicker cones lined up in the village’s deserted yards; others she keeps hidden throughout the rocky valley inside stone fences, tree trunks, and cliff-top crevices. She travels by foot and by train to a town where she sells her honey, buys bananas, and chats with merchants, informing one man that all the other Turks and Albanians left her village a long time ago. Though the footage for the film was gathered over the span of three years, Hatidze, like a cartoon character, wears the same clothes in nearly every shot: a green floral headscarf, a yellow blouse, and a long brown skirt. The film portrays her as a master beekeeper, a loving caretaker, and a complete anachronism.
Honeyland is beautiful and distressing in equal measures.
Early in the film, as Hatidze sings to a swarm of bees and chomps on a piece of honeycomb, she tells the swarm her simple philosophy, “half for you, half for me.” Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov take this and run, building the film into an environmental parable warning viewers of the destructive forces of overconsumption. Cue the nomadic family of nine that comes rumbling into the valley one day in a caravan of jalopies and livestock. Hatidze is initially wary of the newcomers, but soon befriends the family and takes the children under her loving wing—a contrast to the shouting, shoving, and cursing parents Ljutvie and Hussein Sam.
But when Hussein horns in on the honey business, he ignores Hatidze’s philosophy. Whereas Hatidze lovingly cares for her bees (one shot has Hatidze using a leaf to save a bee struggling in a pool of water), Hussein is prone to exclamations like, “oh, the fucker stung me good!” Under pressure from Safet, an outside middleman, Hussein effectively tells his bees, “none for you, all for me.” When he harvests too much honey too early in the season, his bees raid Hatidze’s nearby hives and kill them all. “May God burn their livers,” Nazife says when she hears the news. The seasons pass, the Sam family moves on, winter comes, and Nazife dies. In the final scene, Hatidze returns to the peaks above the valley where the movie began and uncovers a stone to find a hive buzzing with activity. This final image of her surviving bees shows the wisdom in her respect for nature—Hatidze will rebuild.
• • •
Honeyland premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2019 where it went home with three prizes, more than any other film. It then had a successful global festival circuit, collecting countless documentary, environmental, and cinematography awards. During its wide release in summer 2019, it received almost unanimously positive reviews and made history last January as the first film to receive Oscar nominations in both the Best International Film and Best Documentary categories.
The film is beautiful. Assisted by the haunting beauty of the abandoned village Bekirlija, cinematographers Samir Ljuma and Fejmi Daut created scenes that draw the audience in at every moment, each interior scene like a Caravaggio painting. Hussein and Ljutvie make lovable and bumbling semi-villains, while their seven children’s energy, obstinance, and relationship with Hatidze warms viewers’ hearts. Hatidze is a born star—flown out for a number of film festivals, she has a habit of breaking into song when she gets on stage—and Nazife possesses a striking way with words. In the depths of winter, shortly before she dies, she asks, “Is there spring?”
The film lacks any grounding in the local linguistic and historical context of the central Balkans. Accurate readings of the film produce inaccurate readings of reality.
However, as beautiful as the film is, it is equally distressing. The plot is driven by decisions dictated by the characters’ dreadful poverty. It is difficult to watch the immobile Nazife with her seeping wounds slowly die in a dirt-floor room, the air dense with choking clouds of oven smoke. Hatidze and her mother appear to survive on honey, an unidentifiable white mush, and bananas. A child almost drowns in one scene; in another, toddlers waddle blithely about in a pen full of angry kicking cows. The viewer teeters on the border of disgust with the film crew; how could they just stand by, film, and watch without intervention?
In the wake of the film’s success, the directors channeled some of their prize money to their protagonists. For Hatidze, they bought and outfitted a house in the nearest inhabited village. The Sams received a truck and money for school supplies for their now eight children. And the global adoration showered on Hatidze seems to have given her an increased sense of her worth and power—in an article for a Turkish wire agency she demands that Turkish President Erdoğan build a mosque for her new village.
But the directors and crew have offered more than monetary assistance. A recent New York Times article relates how the crew became inextricably tangled in village disputes, of which only a few were shown in the film. The crew, exhausted by mediating the squabbles, funded a foundation to provide legal advisors and social workers to Hatidze and the Sam family. After profiting off of the display of these village squabbles, it seems only fair that the crew would filter some of those profits back to the village to help solve those problems. Yet the Times article portrays the situation as outrageous; why should now famous directors have to worry about a dispute over water usage in an abandoned village in central Macedonia? It seems to miss that these impoverished villagers gave Kotevska, Stefanov, and the rest of the crew a lifetime of credibility and an entry ticket to a new stratosphere of the film world.
On the strength of the cinematography, and due to the fact that Hatidze and the Sam family’s first language is Turkish—which three of the four members of the skeleton crew don’t know—the narrative was structured visually rather than through dialogue. Forgoing the traditional documentary tools—such as interviews, voiceovers, or any narrative explanation beyond visual cues—the collage-like editing manages to produce dramatic tension and emotion, as well as a cohesive narrative about greed, environmental stewardship, and difficult neighbors. During the editing process the team felt that the visual element was so powerful that they contemplated releasing the film without subtitles, replicating for the audience the incomprehension the crew experienced on set. Thankfully, they kept the subtitles, but the visual aspects of the film are so strong that the film’s message would have been clear regardless. Respect for nature is good, the film tells us, overexploitation is bad.
While the directors serve up this simple environmental parable, it is impossible for viewers to ignore that much more is happening in the film. In Q&A sessions with the directors at the 2019 New Directors/New Films Festival at Lincoln Center, the audience posed questions that indicated a hunger for basic facts about the film’s characters and narrative: How does Hatidze survive? Where exactly is this place? Why is she there? What does she eat? Does she have any other family? Did this all really happen? The theater was packed, the audience adored the film, but, still, they asked: What is going on?
And it isn’t just basic facts about Hatidze’s life and surroundings which go unexplored; the film lacks any grounding in the local linguistic and historical context of the central Balkans. For those familiar with the region, the film shimmers with other narrative threads the directors could have explored. All narratives require the erasure of extraneous details, but the film’s failure to provide any contextualization misleads those lacking familiarity with the region; accurate readings of the film produce inaccurate readings of reality. The film invites these misreadings.
• • •
The first scenes of the film show Hatidze sure-footed on the heights of cliffs, graceful and confident in her handling of roiling hives, loving but firm in the care of her mother. An autonomous woman living in forgotten ruins, she is in communion with nature and her bees, with seemingly no modern contrivances or entanglements. Reviewers gushed over the exotic timelessness of her village existence and shed a tear about “the encroachments of modernity” on a “vanishing way of life.”
There is nothing more quintessentially modern than an abandoned village in central Macedonia. Modernity cannot encroach on Bekirlija because Bekirlija is a place modernity already encroached upon, and then eviscerated.
Modernity first encroaches in the form of a teenager with a tall green mohawk straight out of the seventies British punk scene. On the train into town—“town” being Macedonia’s capital Skopje, which goes unnamed in the film—Hatidze sits opposite the punky teen, clutching her satchel full of honey. They regard each other glancingly. In Skopje we see distant shots of Hatidze in her perennial outfit, a yellow and green dot among exhaust-spewing cars and socialist-era brutalist buildings. She makes her way to the bit pazar, Skopje’s central outdoor market. The crowds, the clamor, and the commerce stand in contrast to the previous scenes of bucolic simplicity, just as Hatidze in her village get-up stands out among the contemporary outfits of this European city of over 500,000. Stalking up and down the pazar, she chats in Turkish and Macedonian to men working the stalls, hawking her honey. Hatidze returns home to her mother with money in her pocket, bananas, and chestnut hair dye.
Reminders of modernity are everywhere. Hatidze’s awareness of, and preference for, digital scales to weigh her honey is for K. Austin Collins at Vanity Fair a signifier that “modernity is only so far away.” Although planes have likely been gracing the Macedonian skies over Bekirlija for over sixty years, The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane was overcome by a jetstream, writing, “I cannot forget the sight of Hatidze, in silhouette, climbing the ridge of a hill as dark descends. With her is one of the neighbor’s sons, bearing a bell-shaped hive upon his back. Behind her, in the heavens, is the vapor trail of a jet.”
These scenes that carefully contrast Hatidze’s material conditions to those of the surrounding world lead viewers to identify symbols of modernity everywhere in the film—except for where they are most significant. There is nothing more quintessentially modern than an abandoned village in central Macedonia. Modernity cannot encroach on Bekirlija because Bekirlija is a place modernity already encroached upon, and then eviscerated. The common story across twentieth-century eastern Europe: Bekirlija, and villages like it, were emptied out by the modern forces of urbanization and ethnolinguistic homogenization.
It might seem odd that David Sims of The Atlantic could watch a film taking place in a literal field of wreckage and rubble, and then describe it as seeking “to show the ways in which even the seemingly peaceful, untroubled corners of the planet are being destabilized by human interference.” But he is reading the film exactly as intended. According to the directors’ statement, “The film is set in an unearthly land, unattached to a specific time and geography, unreachable by regular roads.” The directors created a timeless mythical setting for their environmental parable, obscuring the damage modernity wreaked on this village, instead showing it as an untroubled nature preserve. Kotevska and Stefanov made a film about a destroyed village such that most viewers don’t even register the destruction. In one of the more insightful reviews of the film, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody comments on the unexplained emptiness of the village, “We never find out what kind of crisis or what circumstances led to this exodus.”
Hatidze’s village was abandoned in one of a string of mass migrations of Muslims out of the Balkans and into Turkey that started in 1878 and continued on to the end of the twentieth century. Initially following the retreat of the Ottomans, these migrations and expulsions outlived the Empire. As the newly independent Christian (and then Communist) states worked to expunge traces of the Ottoman legacy from their cities, languages, and national histories, local Muslims became the target of campaigns of forcible assimilation and physical removal. Some of these migrants were refugees fleeing massacres and state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing, while others were transferred in internationally mandated population exchanges. Some were Turks who wanted to live with their own kind or were people who, in their religiosity, couldn’t abide Communist rule. The reasons for these exoduses varied by time and place. Though some who left did so willingly, most migrants were fleeing varying intensities of state oppression against Muslims, Turks, or Albanians.
Hatidze’s village was abandoned in one of a string of mass migrations of Muslims out of the Balkans and into Turkey that started in 1878 and continued on to the end of the twentieth century.
The residents of Hatidze’s village left during the migration waves from Yugoslavia to Turkey in the 1950s and ‘60s, precipitated by a 1953 bilateral agreement between the two countries. The agreement allowed for the free migration of Yugoslav Turks to Turkey if they gave up their Yugoslav citizenship. Balkan Muslims were slow to coalesce into distinct national categories, so at the time, and even today, who is or is not a “Turk” in Kosovo and Macedonia is contested. Thousands of Albanians in Yugoslavia, claiming to be Turks, took the opportunity to escape a country that had taken a sudden anti-Albanian turn following Tito’s 1948 break with Stalin and the Little Albanian Stalin to the south, Enver Hoxha.
When Turkey balked that they had agreed to accept Turks but were instead receiving monoglot Albanians, Yugoslavia forced people to “prove” they were Turkish before migrating. But because Turkish was the lingua franca of urban Muslims in Kosovo and Macedonia, Turkish-speaking Albanians, Slavs, and Roms easily passed themselves off as Turks. By the time the migration wave had dried up in the 1960s, almost 200,000 Muslims had abandoned Yugoslavia for Turkey. Though framed as a humanitarian agreement aimed at reconnecting families and establishing goodwill between the countries, the bilateral agreement was suspiciously similar to a Serbian nationalist plan to forcefully deport 200,000 Muslim Albanians to Turkey—a plan that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia likely would have implemented had the governing apparatus not been so incompetent, corrupt, and short of funds, and had World War II not interceded.
But the film ignores this history completely, paving the way for questions such as Brody’s “why is this village empty?” A nod to this history would have prevented The Atlantic from referring to Hatidze as a “Turkish immigrant,” and then asking how she ended up in Macedonia. One would hope the writer might be embarrassed to learn that the answer to his question is “the Ottoman Empire.” A better question than “what’s a Turk doing in Macedonia?” would be “why are there so few Turks in Macedonia?”
Hatidze isn’t the only character whose life was shaped by these migrations. The film’s publicity statement claims that the film is in Turkish and Macedonian with English subtitles. But Safet, the bearlike petit-capitalist middleman, speaks Bosnian throughout the film, and Hussein speaks a Bosnian-Macedonian hybrid with him. Safet, a Bosniak, is in Macedonia due to the same migration waves that emptied out Hatidze’s village. In Yugoslavia’s attempt to stem the flow of non-Turks to Turkey, they limited migration to people with Macedonian residency papers, knowing that very few Yugoslav Turks lived outside Macedonia. As a result, many Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanians moved to Macedonia in order to get residency papers and later apply for migration to Turkey. Some Bosniaks stayed, either because they found that life in Macedonia was acceptable or owing to foiled migration attempts. Safet comes from a Bosniak community near Veles, the town closest to Hatidze’s abandoned village.
Last winter, while doing graduate field work about the Turkish-speaking communities of Kosovo and Macedonia, I tracked down the bit pazar merchants Hatidze chats with in Skopje. One of these men was Sadat Kqiku. Born in Macedonia, Sadat’s family is Albanian from eastern Kosovo. His father’s family moved to Macedonia in 1956 with the intention of continuing on to Turkey. One branch made it to Istanbul, his father ended up near Veles, and the rest of the family returned to Kosovo. The man that sells Hatidze her chestnut hair dye, Jeton Provalija, is also a Macedonian-born Kosovar Albanian whose family was splintered between eastern Kosovo, Skopje, and Istanbul during the migrations of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Hatidze’s way of life isn’t a premodern tradition holding out against the tide of modernity, but a result of recent upheavals.
Despite the directors’ claim about an unearthly land detached from a specific time and geography, all the film’s characters—from Hatidze and the Sams, to Safet, to the unnamed bit players at the bit pazar—are living lives inextricably tied to this specific political and historical context. Hatidze’s way of life isn’t pre-modern tradition holding out against the tide of modernity, but a result of recent upheavals. Her village used to be full. The Sams’ entry into the village is not an encroachment—the arrival of modernity challenging Hatidze’s traditional lifestyle (as the directors intended it to be seen)—but a reintroduction of social life into the village. Their appearance is a reversion to the way things were before the Turks and Albanians of this village abandoned their homes and moved to a foreign land sixty-five years ago.
The parable of the “unearthly land, unattached to a specific time and geography” also falls apart when considering the specifics of Hatidze’s daily life. Though “Hatidze’s solitude is one of the film’s prime subjects and also its dramatic mainspring,” as The New Yorker put it, we never find out how isolated Hatidze’s life actually is. Though members of Hatidze’s family are thanked in the film’s credits, it is never made clear whether Hatidze or her mother have any contact with them. Kotevska and Stefanov mention in later interviews that Hatidze actually has family in the nearest village. In fact, her brothers are engaged in similar beekeeping practices (though in less picturesque locales). And when Nazife died, the nearby family immediately came to the village and were surprised and bothered when a camera crew of city people inexplicably arrived shortly after. This elision of Hatidze’s personal history creates, in Brody’s words, “a false hermetic schema in service of a fantasy.”
The film is full of other oddities. Take, for example, Hatidze’s outfit. Except for the brief winter scenes at the end, Hatidze wears one outfit throughout the entire movie. It is possible that she simply did not have any other clothes, as her life in Bekirlija is one of extreme poverty. It is also possible that every time the crew rolled into the village, over three years of shooting, they happened to catch her in the same clothes. Regardless, the distinctive and colorful get-up provides a convenient visual through line—her wearing the same clothes in every shot ensures continuity for whatever creative storytelling happens in the editing room.
The trip she makes to Skopje to sell her honey at the bit pazar is also curious. Most reviews have taken the scenes at face value and layered on their own assumptions. One informs the reader that Hatidze makes the trip into the nearest town, “twelve miles away,” to sell her honey. But Skopje is closer to miles from Bekirlija, and by no means the closest town. Why would such an impoverished person pay to travel to Skopje, only to sell her honey to middlemen once she gets there? Why not sell through Safet, who goes to the trouble of coming all the way to forlorn Bekirlija? Why not walk to nearby Veles, a town of 40,000, where there certainly exists a market for local honey? Or she could follow the example of countless small producers in the region: post up at the nearest busy road and wait for people to pull over. There could be plenty of explanations for why Hatidze went to Skopje and then decided to sell her honey in the pazar, but none are revealed in the film. The directors were lucky though; the trip provided wonderful footage.
In the pursuit of an environmental message with universal appeal, the directors tried to situate the movie in the universal, which is to say, nowhere.
In interviews Kotevska and Stefanov have said that their “biggest challenge was to create a documentary that had the internal structure of fiction. Because this is really the future of cinema: Fiction that looks like documentaries and documentaries that look like fiction. Real materials to create a normal, familiar fiction structure.” The directors have succeeded in making a documentary that has the dramatic tension and pacing of a work of fiction. But perhaps they were too successful. Given the allegorical nature of the documentary—and the elisions, oddities, and unanswered questions—perhaps it is best to consider the film to be an actual piece of fiction. This blending of fiction and reality does not subtract from the feat the team has accomplished. I paid to see the film four times; it is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. All the same, Brody is right in saying, “It’s as if the reality of Hatidze’s life and work…were too messy and ambiguous for the [filmmakers].” In the pursuit of an environmental message with universal appeal, the directors tried to situate the movie in the universal, which is to say, nowhere. I’m left wondering what the film could have been if, instead of catering to the universal, they had sought to foreground the Balkan particular.
• • •
Few commenters have noted that in this Macedonian film whose central characters are ethnic Turks, the two directors are Macedonian, and the two cinematographers are Albanian. A main foil in the film is a Bosniak whose conversations are conducted in Bosnian and a Bosnian-Macedonian hybrid. The only fully Macedonian-language conversation that occurs in the film is between Hatidze, a Turk, and Jeton, an Albanian. Every character is Muslim, and the film includes scenes of what appears to be a predominantly Roma oil wrestling festival that Hatidze and the Sam family attend. Though such a portrayal should not be noteworthy, this accurate portrait of the diversity of Macedonia, and the Balkans, is often ignored or denied. By deemphasizing the cultural richness the film portrays, the directors missed an opportunity to offer a radical rewriting of the Balkan imaginary.
In popular consciousness the word “Balkan” is shorthand for ancient ethnic hatreds and backwardness. This is the source of the word “balkanization,” which refers to the violent division of an entity into smaller, mutually hostile groups. People from the region internalize this understanding and “Balkan” becomes pejorative, a contaminant to ascribe to that which is to south or east, or to those who are Muslim or poor. But in linguistics “balkanization” has the opposite meaning. Linguists use the word to refer to the grammatical convergence of disparate languages under conditions of stable and long-term contact. Due to Macedonia’s long history of heterogeneity, the languages and dialects spoken in and around Macedonia are at the center of this phenomenon. When early linguists started studying Balkan languages in the nineteenth century, they remarked that it was almost as if Albanian, Macedonian/Bulgarian, and Aromanian (a romance language spoken in Albania, Greece, and Macedonia with 1,000 years of separation between it and the language that became Romanian) were three lexicons with a common grammar. This appears throughout Honeyland, with Albanians speaking Macedonian and Turkish, and Turks speaking Macedonian and Bosnian. When enough people do this, languages begin to shift, change, and, perhaps, converge. The development of these grammatical convergences contradicts nationalist narratives of divisive interethnic hostility across the centuries.
If the film shows a vanishing way of life, it is in its portrayal of its characters' relationships to language.
If the film shows a vanishing way of life, it is this relationship to language. Once the norm, mutual multilingualism in the Balkans is disappearing due to reduced contact between different language communities and the dominance of English and German. The film shows the two main hotbeds where local multilingualism continues: mixed rural villages and islands of urban contact like the bit pazar. Though we only see Jeton and Hatidze speaking in Macedonian, Jeton told me that they also spoke Turkish and Albanian with one another. Hatidze learned these languages, in addition to Romani, through ongoing contact with family, neighbors, shepherds, and farmers who come through her valley, further undermining the narrative of her total isolation. Hatidze, Jeton, Sadat, Safet, and Hussein—all middle-aged with limited or no education—are the bearers of a beautiful tradition. I quote Jeton in full:
Macedonian, Albanian, Romani, Turkish, English, Serbo-Croatian, six or seven languages I know, more or less, because in Macedonia you speak with all types, you have to know all the languages. Ask me, whichever you want out of these languages, I know how to answer you in all of them, that’s normal. If you don’t know these languages, you’re nothing.
Jeton’s young children will likely speak English or German better than they speak Macedonian. The younger generation of Safet’s family will likely assimilate into Macedonian and lose their Bosnian. And though my Albanian is limited to basic words and the ability to buy things at bakeries and cafes, I know more of the language than any ethnic Macedonian under the age of thirty-five that I’ve ever met.
The film is not unattached to a specific time and geography. It is a Balkan film. I wish it were unabashedly so.
All the same, Honeyland shows us that the Balkans—as a place of convergence, mixture, language contact, and cultural richness—still exists. Campaigns of national, cultural, and linguistic homogenization have not won out. While most other Balkan countries have been on concerted national homogenization campaigns for a century or more, Macedonia has succeeded at maintaining the type of cultural and linguistic diversity that has defined the region for so long. The film shows this and unwittingly celebrates it. The directors are wrong; the film is not unattached to a specific time and geography. It is a Balkan film. I wish it were unabashedly so.
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December 17, 2020
21 Min read time