I’m aware that by choosing to spend a summer evening watching a film about North Macedonian bee keepers I have basically become a parody of myself.
The film, however, directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov, comes laden with plaudits. It was nominated for the Oscars in the categories both of best international feature film and best documentary (the first time that this has happened, apparently), and won three awards at Sundance in 2019.
It focuses on the life of a middle-aged ethnic Turkish woman, Hatidže Muratova, one of the last “wild bee-keepers” in Europe. With sun- and wind-battered skin, and teeth that appear never to have seen a dentist, she is living with her octogenarian mother (who hasn’t left her bed for four years and has some kind of terrible suppurating sore around her eye, which surely would benefit from hospital treatment), in a stone house in the countryside, scaling crumbling scree and rock faces to tend to her bees. Living conditions are rudimentary in Bekirlija, the abandoned village in which she lives, without utilities or paved roads – basic in summer but punishing in winter. We learn, almost in passing, that Hatidže lost three sisters in childhood, all of them under the age of 10.
She travels to the North Macedonian capital Skopje to sell her honey for around 10 euros a jar, where she seems like a fragment from the rural past, with her peasant clothing, but negotiates confidently with the traders, and ponders shades of hair dye. Her honey, she makes clear, is untainted by extra sugar, is pure and delicious, and she claims for it both medicinal and nutritional qualities.
However, a family moves in nearby, with several children, also seeking to capitalize on the talents of the local bees. Hatidže plays and sings with the children, and it is obvious she would have made a brilliant mother, through she has never married. In a reflective, regretful moment she wistfully asks her mother whether her parents actively discouraged suitors. The children, meanwhile, are hardy and practical: one boy matter-of-factly delivers a calf.
I fretted about safety and hand washing, and thought my own life would look crazy in contrast. The family often deal with the bees with zero protective gear: the filthy children are horribly stung, but this is just part of daily life. Life is beautiful and bleak, and tech is more or less non-existent.
Hatidže comes to resent the family’s intrusion on her world however, as Hussein signs a deal with a local trader to mass produce honey, in a desperate effort to keep meals on the the table for his children – a decision that threatens to destroy the fragile and symbiotic ecosystem within with Hatidže has made her life.
In the film, we watch Hatidže follow airplanes with her eyes as she see them cross the skies, and we assume they are utterly alien to her. Since her mother’s death, however, she has travelled to Hollywood for the Oscars, and to several international film festivals. The BBC also reports that the directors purchased a home for Hatidže in another village, where she can live near to her brother and his family – but that she always returns to her former home for honey-making season.