AN EPIC BEE TALE, A YOUNG ACTOR’S LIFE

Would you believe me if I told you one of the best films of the year is a Macedonian documentary about the last female wild beekeeper in Europe? You should — because it is. “Honeyland,” which won the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize (plus other Sundance accolades for impact and cinematography, as well as multiple other film fest awards), is a beautifully shot and dramatically constructed microcosm of both the best and the worst traits of humanity. It’s playing at Laemmle’s Royal in West Los Angeles.

Hatidze lives with and cares for her blind, paralyzed mother in a primitive hut in a remote dry and barren mountain region of Macedonia. Like her father, grandfather, great-grandfather and who-knows-how-many generations of ancestors, she maintains a tradition of tending wild bees in the rocky ruins and stony outcrops that surround her. 

To care for the bees, protect and collect their honey sustainably, she must climb steep narrow paths to the hives she helps maintain. To bring back the honey she must carry heavy loads of honeycomb up and down vertiginous slopes. In winter, bees cannot forage, so contemporary beekeepers feed them sugar. But Hatidze’s mantra is take half, leave half:  She leaves half their honey to feed on and she — without being stung — collects her fair share of this uniquely flavored honey, the source of her income. 

We watch the slow, painstaking process of working with the bees, turning the comb into honey that she can take to market to sell, and the long journey she must take to do so. It’s laborious but there’s nothing like her honey at any market, so she ekes out a small living selling jars of it. 

The harsh, vast and intimidating landscape is itself a character in this film; I felt a sense of wonder about the cinematography — after all, to get those shots hanging off the side of a mountain swarmed by bees, those cameras had to be there with her. They shot 400 hours of footage over three years.

Hatidze accepts the harsh conditions of the her almost uninhabitable geography until a family of raucous and impoverished nomads, who could go anywhere in this vast wilderness, instead choose to live in the rundown ruin next to hers, with their enormous family and herd of livestock. They, too, must make a living and with setbacks due to animal diseases, they decide to try beekeeping.

NATURE’S WAY

Hatidze is generous in sharing her time, her wisdom, her experience and her bees. She befriends the father (Hussain), mother and the wild children. But the family has many mouths to feed (seven children, another on the way), and the relationship breaks down when Hussain ignores her advice, killing the bees in his effort to make a quicker buck (or rather, denar). 

“Honeyland” was shot in a region abandoned in the 1950s. The filmmakers were commissioned to make an environmental video for the Nature Conservation Project of Macedonia and while doing research, first they found the bees, then Hatidze. And when the nomadic neighbors moved in, they had a built-in story arc of conflict between those who respect nature and those who want, or are forced to, reap earth’s resources for short term gain. 

Tamara Kotevska, co-filmmaker with Ljubomir Stefanov, says: “We hope that the story of Hatidze can trigger a change in perspective on life for people, to remind them how much they already know about the relationship between nature and humanity, and to motivate them to find their inner strength as they reflect on this extraordinary heroine.”

LOVE, ANTOSHA

Actor Anton Yelchin was born to a family of athletes but found his true calling at a young age. He found early success on a variety of television shows and was breaking into the movie business as a young adult. Many fans already knew Yelchin as the young Chekov in the Star Trek film series, just one of countless films he made in his 18-year career; he was just 27 when he died. His professional credits are longer than most others three times his age.

This kid had it all: looks, drive, ambition, a perfectionist at his art, and his arts were multiple. He was a musician, songwriter, voice over artist, photographer…and he also had cystic fibrosis. Never was this phrase truer: he lived life to its absolute fullest. His death was a freak accident: his jeep rolled down his driveway, pinning him against the gate, and his limited lung capacity ran out before he could be rescued. 

Born in Russia, the only child of an artistic family, including the mother he doted on, Yelchin always signed his letters to her, “Love, Antosha.” She had been in the process of archiving home movies and other materials when she was approached by director Garrett Price to make a documentary about Anton. There is much wonderful vintage footage.

He is remembered by numerous actors, producers and friends, including Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart, Frank Langella, JJ Abrams, Chris Pine, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, and many others, all of whose lives he touched in singularly memorable ways.

This documentary is a truly moving, loving and edifying tribute to a talented and, tragically, late lamented young actor. It will screen for a limited run at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West L.A., beginning Friday, Aug. 2.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications. 

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