What is your place in the ecology?

Published: 20 March, 2020 05:08 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

The story of a wild beekeeper, Honeyland shows how the human society lost its way amid its needs, wants and aspirations

A still from the 2019 Macedonian documentary, Honeyland. Pic /honeyland.earth
A still from the 2019 Macedonian documentary, Honeyland. Pic /honeyland.earth

picThe last studio visit I did before I decided to put myself in lockdown was at the home of artists Nidhi Khurana and Rahul Soni. It was long overdue. I've known the couple informally since I moved into Khirki village, Delhi, back in 2011. And each time I'd bump into them at art exhibition openings, I'd promise them I'd come over, but then never did.

Life and work and travel got in the way. Nidhi reminded me when I had returned from West Bengal that I owed her a visit. I wanted to hold good on my word, so we set a lunch date the day after Holi. As she was readying the table for lunch, she decided to make a salad. She asked if I wanted to accompany her to the rooftop, to their home garden, to pick rocket leaves. Obsessed as I am with urban farming, I happily agreed.

We were in Neb Sarai, near the IGNOU campus. Nidhi told me they often sourced fresh organic vegetables from there. They grew whatever they could on their rooftop. It was superbly spacious, with fully grown herbs and even some small trees. I told her the only thing she had to do now, to complete the ecosystem, is keep bees. She didn't laugh at my suggestion as I feared she would. She thought it was a viable idea. I shared with her about how where my partner lives in Südtirol, it is commonplace for a well-kept garden to maintain a bee colony.

I had seen how his aunts Monika and Maridl kept them, in these drawer-like cabinets, and how they maintained grasses and other vegetation carefully, so the bees could tend to the ecosystem. Ever since I met my partner I had stopped buying honey as the owner of the winery where his father works takes his beekeeping very seriously.

In my father and mother-in-law's pantry is therefore always several bottles of gorgeous, thick, creamy honey, and I now have a steady supply of it in my kitchen in Delhi. I always have a bottle, and I eat it as if it were gold.

The other evening, as my partner and I settled in to watch Honeyland, a 2019 North Macedonian documentary film directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, I realized honey is actually substantially more precious than gold. It really depends on the ideological currency you choose to invest in it.

My partner had recommended the documentary when it was making waves on the international film festival circuit but it was impossible to find at the time. The trailer was so memorable, I had subconsciously recorded that I wanted to see this film when the time was right.

The Coronavirus lockdown seemed the most opportune moment, especially after I had written last week about the links between our capitalist economies and the rise of the pandemic. The film follows the subjectivity of Hatidže Muratova, a wild beekeeper in the remote mountainous village of Bekirlija, North Macedonia. We were sure it was a documentary, and yet, mid-way through the film, because there emerges a plot, we began to think perhaps it was scripted, after all. Muratova is the only person of her kind in this mountainous village. She nurses her ailing mother, lives off the land, but most importantly, lives in harmony with it. When she takes honey from the bees, she ensures she leaves half for them. She doesn't mine them. She doesn't exploit them as a resource. She ensures a sustainable income, which is basic, but is enough for her needs.

The directors of the film were originally meant to make a government-supported short about preserving the region surrounding river Bregalnica, in the central region of the country, I read later on Wikipedia. However, after the filming team encountered Muratova, the narrative changed course, especially after the arrival of a nomad family in the neighbouring house, who decide to start keeping bees after seeing that Muratova manages to live off it.

It is a heartbreaking film, and while it is indeed a documentary, it feels more like a parable for our hyper-capitalistic times, when the gap between needs and wants and aspirations feels unbridgeable. If there's a film I think should be mandatory viewing for everyone undergoing the Coronavirus lockdown, it's this one, Honeyland.

When we were done watching, my partner walked to the kitchen because he had begun to crave honey from his home-town. I followed him and we shared a tablespoon of it. We felt a melancholia. Tramin felt so far away.

Even though we have a ticket to return on May 17, with the world in the state that it is, we doubt we'll be allowed on that flight. The world is divided into two — people like Muratova, who understand their place within an ecology; and people like her capitalist neighbour, who weaponises the fact that he has mouths to feed to enable his greed at the cost of ecology. It is no wonder, then, that nature revolts. But the film shows us that nature can also be healed, if we allow it time.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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