I find documentaries like Honeyland difficult to really engage with. I can just never shake the macro view I’m always seeing in my head—that these people living in such remote poverty are doing so with people with film equipment watching them. It’s not that I think there’s an ethical or moral problem with this, the contrary: I think documentaries like Honeyland are important and valuable for the empathy they can inspire in people so far removed from this reality. That documenting these lives is itself an act of empathy.
What I find odd, in a contemporary documentary, is when the documentarians are never addressed (unlike the ones where the process of documenting is itself part of the document). Weirdly, presenting these stories as if pure, as if we’re just magically happening to witness it, unadulterated by the presence of storytellers with cameras, makes everything they show feel less real to me. I just constantly think about the practicalities of it. How did you get that shot from a distance, I’ll wonder, when it’s a continuation of the moment we were just in? Did you have to re-stage it? What sort of cajoling was necessary for this nomadic cattle farming family to agree to be filmed and pretend not to notice, when they, seemingly spontaneously and without plan, roll in to the abandoned village? Is it really true that this destitute, nearly hermit-like wild beekeeper was just already wearing a shirt in an unusual rich saffron-yellow, a color matched to the hues of her honey and beeswax? Did anyone help her dig that grave in the frozen ground. What was your thought process before your cameras followed her out into the night with a torch to chase off the wolves howling in the blackness.
I spend a lot of time thinking these questions, and it keeps me at a distance from the story the movie is actually trying to tell. And in this case, I also found the story itself difficult, due to being so bleak! Hatidze and her bees are betrayed and mistreated by this other family, and it hurts to watch. They are also quite cruel to their animals, and that was just as hard for me to get through as their interpersonal and ecological carelessness.
But, I am glad that I did. There was something rewarding in the completion of it.