So there I was, sitting on the front porch of a Whidbey Island vacation cabin with two of my favorite writers — let’s call them Bret and Scott — and feeling grateful for this rare opportunity to commune with great minds. They were taking turns telling stories about writing and traveling that made me jealous of their experiences.

Bret was commenting on how grateful he was for this rare opportunity to soak up a view of the snow-capped Cascades. So enchanted was he by the sight that he didn’t see a large hornet crawling across his wrist. I cringed, then quietly pointed out his bright yellow visitor. He flicked his wrist and the bee flew off.

Since that particular threat looked strangely familiar, I launched into a story of my own: “I’ve only been stung once — and it makes sense that I would get bee-stung in a movie theater, right?” They blinked at me. “It was like a bad joke,” I continued. “I’m standing in line for popcorn, and I feel a needle pierce the base of thumbnail. Feels like it penetrates all the way up to my shoulder. I got through the rest of the movie by numbing my hand in a cup full of ice.”

There was an awkward silence.

Then Scott quietly asked, “Well, okay, but… what movie was it?”

Bret started laughing. Then Scott started laughing. Then they both kept on laughing — a lot. Too much, perhaps. And I stayed pretty quiet the rest of the afternoon.

Okay, so my bee-sting story isn’t particularly compelling. I get that. Not relative to the stories they were telling, anyway.

Allow me to direct you to a much more compelling story about bee stings that you’ll never forget. They happen — again and again and again — in a new film called Honeyland.

Buried treasure in a different kind of gold rush. (Credit: Deckert Distribution GmbH)

Honeyland begins as a startling portrait of an extraordinary beekeeper, and then turns suddenly into a suspenseful drama with life-and-death stakes. And that detail that makes it so much more compelling is this: It’s a documentary, comprising footage from four years of attentiveness in the rocky wilderness of the Republic of North Macedonia by the filmmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska.

Their subject, Hatidze Muratova, is a genius — she seems to be known and even welcomed by swarms of bees as she carefully and routinely extracts honeycombs and honey from the rugged rises of rock near her home, leaving plenty behind for the bees to continue their architecture and art. She sings to the bees. She speaks to them. She reminds them of the terms of their contract. It’s the central principle of her stewardship: half for her, half for them. And she seems to goes unstung — which is hard to believe, considering the immensity of the swarms and the sizes of those hives that are so impressively concealed in the landscape.

Hatidze at her mothers bedside, her mind alive with bees. (Credit: Deckert Distribution GmbH)

It’s a good thing that she’s found her calling: She and her elderly, house-bound mother Nazife, living in the wild more than ten miles from the nearest city (the Macedonian capital, Skopje), are dependent on the income from that rare, raw honey. And Nazife is blind and completely reliant on her daughter’s care and earnings. I would be hard-pressed to think of any other mother–daughter relationship I’ve seen on a screen that is as intimate as this one. Nazife is as striking a physical presence as the grandmother in Sajiyat Ray’s Pather Pachali, kept alive by Hatidze’s honey and by her love (which seem symbolically synonymous), even as each day seems to pose more challenges to her health and spirit than most human beings could withstand.

But bees aren’t the only agents in this environment that have the capacity to sting.

We watch as a family living out of a trailer moves in “next door” to establish a small farm of cattle and chickens. And we suspect that this will lead to trouble. But Hatidze proves to be friendly, generous, and fond of hanging out with Hussein, his wife Ljutvie, and their several children; it’s almost as if she is getting to experience what life might have been like if she’d been blessed with a family of her own.

Hatidze welcomes her new neighbors and their children, as if she doesn’t see trouble coming. (Credit: Deckert Distribution GmbH)

Time proves to be a punishing revelation for Hussein and his family. Striving to earn as much as possible, they try to replicate Hatidze’s successes. You might imagine that the many possible conflicts that might come of this. Will they drive her out of business? Will someone die from adverse reactions to bee stings? (Whether you’re allergic to bees or not, you’ll find yourself twitching at how many times you see someone get stung, especially when you remind yourself that these aren’t actors on a stage.) Will they be as frustrated in their beekeeping as they’ve been with their efforts to raise cattle? Should we be concerned about the businessman who persuades Hussein to make deals on honey delivery that he cannot fulfill?

This is the kind of “reality cinema” that makes me want to investigate and find out just how the filmmakers could have been so fortunate as to have their cameras rolling during so many dramatic turns. I suspect that their “collaboration” may have involved some efforts to give a conventional narrative shape to events that were probably more complicated than they seem here. And I’m more than a little concerned that we’re not given enough context for understanding the pressures that might lead Hussein and his family to trespass on Hatidze’s territory. It’s easy to brand them as monsters and villains, but I suspect that the truth is much more complicated than that. Aren’t they like worker bees themselves, struggling to keep a hive alive and fruitful in harsh conditions? Aren’t they, like the bees, anxious workers being exploited by outside forces?

Hatidze feeds her dependent mother in their tiny home as trouble brews outside. (Credit: Deckert Distribution GmbH)

To the filmmakers’ credit, though, I never get the sense that actual events are being forced into a crowdpleasing shape, even though these events unfold in a way that will inevitably have critics reaching for terms like “folk tale” and “parable.” The story becomes a psalmic lament over injustice. The righteous and innocent suffer the consequences of action taken by the wicked — or, at best, the desperate and irresponsible. And creation groans under the abuses of industry. (A.O. Scott, in his wonderful review for The New York Times, even compared this story to The Lorax!)

The implications for the rest of the world, in the film’s contrast of conscientious stewardship and arrogant exploitation, are clear, but never underlined. This is a profound example of that most fundamental ethic of artistry: show, don’t tell.

And the whole thing looks gorgeous, especially Hatidze herself, whose face is exquisitely detailed, expressive, and surprising. She, like the country in which she has found buried treasure, seems toughened by many years of harsh conditions, and yet her generosity and humor are as radiant and rich as honey from those rocks.

Real honey, harvested from a real place, by a real beekeeper, in a story that’s hard to believe. (Credit: Deckert Distribution GmbH)

Her sufferings, her successes, her losses, and her loneliness will inspire from attentive audiences something akin to a prayer — a desire for some benevolent spirit to bless her with a future and a family, so that she can find happiness and so that her work can go on. She is this Macedonian landscape’s greatest wonder.

Now, this is a story about bees worth telling.

And, in retrospect, I wish that this had been the movie (not 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene) during which I’d been stung. That might have given my own story a punchline that would make it worth telling after all.