“Underdevelopment, Coated in Honey”
Dina Iordanova (University of St. Andrews)
It is wrong to represent underdevelopment as an enchanting morality tale. And it has been wrong since the time Robert Flaherty made Nanook of the North a century ago. In a way, Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov, 2019) is Nanook for the 21st century: a modern-day rendering of the Flaherty approach, wherein filmmakers who do not even speak the language of the native subjects come and film them. In this instance, a 50-year old ethnic Turkish woman, Hatidže, who lives in primitive conditions in the remote mountain village of Bekirlija in North Macedonia, where she stoically cares for her elderly mother and sustains both by keeping wild bees, is filmed by two young local filmmakers, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov, both ethnic Slavs. The film observes Hatidže’s complex interactions with people and nature and gradually builds her into a sage who follows the wisdom of the natural world. Hatidže is led to act and fit into a certain version of her own life, based on fact but framed poetically by the filmmakers. Honeyland – for which the directors say they “stitched a visual narrative that made sense” since they didn’t understand Hatidže’s speech – is a bona fide Flahertian re-enacted documentary. One can also call it “fake.”
Honeyland is one of the most awarded and widely distributed films of the current cycle, starting with a win at Sundance in 2019 and reaching the end of the year with two Oscar nominations, for best international feature film and for best feature-length documentary – a diagnosis of sorts, which confirms that documentary is as highly constructed as any feature film. The wide acclaim for Honeyland is a great success for two young filmmakers from an isolated small nation. But what this dual nomination reveals to me is that Honeyland is too fictionalized to be regarded as documentary. Or, put another way, the film is too contrived to stand as a “representation of reality.” Whilst showing the life of a poor ethnic minority woman in the “godforsaken” Balkans, it is driven by the desire to serve as a morality tale. Honeyland does not document; it preaches.
In casting golden light over Hatidže’s poverty and dedication, over her ability to be accepting and to live in harmony with nature, the film endows her with moral superiority and depicts her lifestyle as something to be aspired to. Indeed, the proposition of a simple sedentary life, close to one’s roots and respectful of nature’s gentle ways, is a moral imperative for today. Hatidže’s filial devotion is presented as so much superior to the mayhem that the family of settlers brings along – they are rushed, dirty and noisy, they are disrespectful and violent. Their young son disapproves and will, sooner or later, run away and cut ties with his stressed and disheveled father; through him, the film shows how the ideal next generation leans to Hatidže’s ways. Indeed, the film seems to say, this is the lifestyle that we all ought to choose if we care for the planet and for the survival of humankind. We must drop jet-setting, stop being high-consuming high-flyers, slow down. Look at the sky and embrace the land. Bring the bees back. Meditate. Atone.
For its inspiring and enchanting message, Honeyland relies on a sugar-coated representation of underdevelopment. Another documentary could have been made with the same material and in the same place. It would show the extreme isolation and neglect of ethnic minorities by their government, the abject poverty they live in, their limited life opportunities, their lack of basic amenities, and their shortage of schooling and health care. We see Hatidže go to market in Skopje to sell a few jars of her miraculous honey; when one looks up the place, one realizes it is 60 kilometers away from where she lives – so this is quite a journey and not the result of her casually popping into the city as the film shows it. She may sell a few jars of her honey for 15 Euro a piece – yet how many can she sell in a place where people have no money? Even if she managed to sell ten jars, it would be 150 Euro, her revenue for the season…
Hatidže’s life of self-sustainability – like the lives of many at the margins in this part of the world – is not one of choice but one of lacking choices. The political realities of isolation, mismanagement, and corruption coerce her to be what she is – a beekeeper, looking for nourishment from nature, hiding in a ruined furrow with her mother. It is a story of survival, not one of the Rousseauist retour a la nature.
But if the filmmakers were to simply show the reality, most people would not have seen this film today nor would we be talking about it here. Filmmakers from isolated countries – and this is as true about the Balkans as it is about many other places – cannot gain attention unless they resort to self-exoticism. Stitching the narrative in a certain way and asking their subjects to re-enact certain aspects that enhance the enchanting moral tale are simple responses to market demand. This is what sells at festivals and what is in demand for international distribution, so this is what young directors like Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov have learned to offer from early on. Nothing new here: this type of market demand has been driving some of the most successful filmmaking from the Balkans for decades now; the work of acclaimed surreal exuberance expert Emir Kusturica comes to mind. The young generation, too, have a good product – and one that sells better than wild bee honey.
“Glimpse of Difference: Sympoietic Aesthetics”
Maja Manojlovic (UCLA)
“Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means ‘making-with.’ (…) It’s a word for worlding-with, in company.”
– Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene
“The world of representation is characterized by its inability to conceive of difference in itself (…) and its inability to conceive of repetition (…), grasped only by means of recognition, distribution, reproduction and resemblance.”
– Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition
“The cinema must film, not the world, but belief in this world, our only link.”
– Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image
Honeyland (2019), a Macedonian observational style documentary, directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, broke new ground with Academy Award nominations for both best documentary and best international feature. The latter category was formerly known as best foreign-language film. “Shattering borders,” both geographical and generic, this film can be understood as a “lyrical environmental fable” that sets aside the representational strategies of established film categories. What emerges is a novel approach to filming the world that doesn’t lend itself to simply recognizing this film as – to paraphrase Kotevska – fitting into a folder. In what follows, I explore Honeyland’s cinematic approach to making sense of the world by way of sympoietic aesthetics of affect, feeling and gesture. These sympoietic aesthetics invite us to suspend our impulse to re-cognize its images as fitting the world we already know, and instead have a glimpse of what Deleuze meant by “difference in itself.”
Commissioned as an environmental film for a nature conservation project, Honeyland is set in Bekirlija, a rural village in the Republic of North Macedonia. Its narrative revolves around Hatidže Muratova’s care for her mother, as well as her sustainable methods of wild beekeeping, honoring the life of bees and attuned to the natural environment. Her neighbors, a nomadic family of eight, who settle into the village every spring, continuously interfere with her environmental ethics, and cause her immense existential trouble when they mistreat their bees, which end up attacking and killing Hatidže’s entire beehive – the main source of her livelihood.
The cinematic expressiveness of Honeyland shines through in portraying how Hatidže “stays with the trouble.” Working through this idea, Donna Haraway engages the concept of sympoiesis to propose an alternative understanding and relation with our world. She describes sympoiesis as “collectively-producing systems that do not have self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries. Information and control are distributed among components. The systems are evolutionary and have potential for surprising change.” Sympoietics therefore account for the unpredictability of such evolutionary systems, in that they don’t simply reproduce the known, but instead have the potential to surprise us with novel assemblages that are not immediately re-cognizable. We could therefore understand sympoiesis as a process producing difference, which is outside of both general principles of representations of thought and representational practices of cinema.
Honeyland’s cinematic expression gives sensory form to such a subtle, yet palpable difference, which is not immediately re-cognizable. It surprises with novel, sympoietic, and “collectively-producing” assemblages, comprised of people, as well as animals, insects, plants, land, weather, and the elements – all closely intertwined with one another. This film expresses how our world would look and feel when comprehended through sympoietic “making-with.” Honeyland accomplishes this by avoiding the established and recognizable (both fictional and documentary) approaches to its subject matter that would leave no space for “surprising change.” Indeed, rather than reproducing arguments for solving the world’s problems of sustainability, biodiversity, and circular economy, the film shows how it might feel to be thinking through and “staying with” the trouble. It shows that feeling might be the link enabling not only the making sense of the world, but also restoring our belief in it. “Belief in this world,” as a lived experience that, like embodiment, often palpitates outside representational paradigms of both thought and cinema.
Attentive to the feeling(s) of its participants, Honeyland’s sympoietic aesthetics are grounded in the complex, embodied interactions of its human and non-human participants, and communicated through their affective expressions and bodily gestures. Rather than communicating according to the “folder-fitting” representational rhetoric, this film expresses difference by “speaking” to our senses. This is accomplished through expressive characters of Hatidže, her partly blind mother Nazife, their dog, and the bees. Eventually they’re joined by their neighbors, a family of eight, with their truck, trailer, farm animals, and kittens – each affectively intertwined with one another, as well as the elements, and the land itself. As Anna Gibbs suggests, affective connections are “both intra- and inter-corporeal.” These intra- and inter-corporeal organizations of affect are pivotal to the sympoietic aesthetics in Honeyland. Specifically, the ways in which different species and entities connect and co-create its world through the inter-corporeal extension of their intra-corporeal feelings and affects.
This occurs, most notably, when these feelings and affects extend into gestures, such as Hatidže’s ritualistic invocation of the queen bee by lifting up the beehive-basket, and rhythmically calling “Maat, maat, maat!” Or, when Hatidže simply sits in the chair next to her bedridden mother, her look directed toward the camera, but not at it. She doesn’t perform for the camera the way you and I would. As Kotevska put it in an interview: “Hatidže and people like her don’t have this perception of how they should behave in front of other people. They are just who they are.” In this sense, Hatidže embodies sympoietic aesthetics of this film. By extending “who she is” beyond the representational gaze of the camera, she gestures both outside of its film-world and our preconceived notions of it. Her gesture hit me directly in the gut. I believe her.
As its narrative gives expression to different kinds of living (and dying) embodied entities, this film thus reactivates the gut-level feeling, evoked by Deleuze’s “link” with this world. Indeed, by sympoietically compositing such a variety of embodied entities, meaningfully linked to one another and the world through their affective connections, feelings, and gestures, Honeyland generates a novel kind of cinematic experience that plants a seed revitalizing our “belief in this world.”