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Film review: 'Honeyland'

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Taking home several top prizes at this year's Sundance Film Festival, including the Documentary World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, "Honeyland" offers an intimate portrait of a life lived in harmony with the natural world.

The film follows Hatidze Muratova, the last in a long line of Macedonia's nomadic beekeepers, living isolated in the mountainous region deep within the Balkans. Tending to her hives of honeybees with a near monastic devotion, Hatidze makes a meager living farming small batches of their honey to be sold in the marketplaces of nearby villages.

Her methods revolve around protecting and respecting these insects -- her rule is to only take half of the honey she harvests, with the rest left for the bees themselves. The process can be anxiety-inducing: I couldn't stop shrinking down in my seat watching Muratova sticking her bare hand into their stone hives while gently brushing away the buzzing swarms.

Conflict eventually rears its head in the form of the itinerant Turkish family who pull up in their mobile home and move onto the plot of land near Muratova's. With seven rambunctious children and herd of cattle, the family threatens to upset that delicate balance of Hatidze's solitary existence.

As first she doesn't mind the companionship, particularly enjoying the children's rambunctious presence. But as she chats with family patriarch Hussein about her business, he begins to see an opportunity and takes a stab at beekeeping himself. But he doesn't have the critical understanding and respect for the living creatures he's exploiting, and his efforts threaten to encroach on Muratova's livelihood.

For a while Hussein seems set to become the villain of the piece, but Stefanov and Kotevska allow for a more complicated picture to emerge. After all, he desires only to protect and provide for his family. In that way, he's not unlike Hatidze, as she tends to the bees while caring for her half-blind and bedridden 86-year-old mother.

The filmmakers spent three years filming Hatidze, and their time and patience gives us a deep, affectionate appreciation for Hatidze and her bees. As it goes on, "Honeyland" becomes a bittersweet ode to the fragile balance of all living things, and a powerful testament to a life lived with care and simplicity.