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Gatekeepers of the Void: On Award-Winning Docs ‘Honeyland’ and ‘143 Sahara Street’

Two of the best documentaries of 2019 showcase women holding on at the fringes of the modern world

TIFF/Neon/Ringer illustration

Existing at the edge of the world is not so different from existing in the center of it. Those vantages (and their remove from modern mandates) might as well be parallel, two of the best documentaries of 2019 would attest. Hatidze, an aging woman, childless and unmarried, subsists as a wild-bee keeper, following ancient methods from the remote valleys of Macedonia, in a village largely abandoned for generations. Malika, another aging woman, childless and unmarried, subsists in a Spartan stone hut just off a vacant stretch of the Trans-Sahara Highway in Algeria, selling tea, scrambled eggs, and cigarettes to the infrequent passersby. They are seemingly unmoored from the political and socioeconomic systems that dictate the world just beyond their purview, but nonetheless feel the squeeze when the pressures of modernity take the form of unexpected neighbors.

Hatidze is the protagonist of Honeyland, a 2019 Sundance Grand Jury Prize–winning documentary directed by the Macedonian duo of Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov. Malika is the protagonist of 143 Sahara Street, which landed Algerian filmmaker Hassen Ferhani the Best Emerging Director award at the Locarno Film Festival in August. Their stories, released only months apart, come with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. In Honeyland, Hatidze lives in a small dwelling in relative seclusion, and has developed a near-mystical relationship with the bees of the land; she soon finds herself neighbored by the Sams, a nomadic family of nine, who come storming into the village of Bekirlijia to profit off the seasonal fertility of the land. In 143 Sahara Street, Malika’s livelihood is imperiled by the construction of a fuel station built—almost comically—mere meters from her home. The allegory in both predicaments would be suffocating if the films’ portrayals weren’t so intimately focused on their subjects’ humanity.

Much has been said about Honeyland’s mesmerizing opening scenes: Drone shots broadly trace the lush Macedonian landscape before the frame zeroes in on Hatidze calmly maneuvering along a mountainside ledge; with the help of a makeshift steel pry bar, she dislodges a piece of stone, then a slate, to reveal a cavernous indentation of an outcrop where bees have built a hive; she patiently removes a honeycomb from the colony without any protective gear, without any fear of being stung. She takes some honey for herself, then leaves the rest with the bees, and reseals the stone apiary. Half for me, half for you. That is Hatidze’s mantra, an encapsulation of her deeply symbiotic relationship with her surroundings. Those opening scenes charge the movie with wonder and quickly establish the stakes: Hatidze has entrenched herself in a rare and delicate natural order, but nothing gold—especially not honey—can stay.

Bees are dying at an alarming rate, we’ve been told for more than a decade. The resulting meme and its rather melancholy humor suggest how removed many feel from issues threatening the planet’s infrastructure. Hatidze may put a face on the crisis for some, but part of Honeyland’s allure is how deeply it pulls you into her world, and its triumphs and challenges. Still, there is nothing so definite as villainy in the movie. The intruding family that encamps next door are bumbling opportunists with little sense of how to reap the benefits of the land without sucking it dry, but even they are treated as figures worthy of empathy: Tough decisions have to be made to support a large family, and not everyone is equipped to make the right ones all the time.

Hatidze befriends the children, and mentors one of the sons in the art of wild-bee keeping, while advising Hussein, the patriarch, on the dos and don’ts of profiting off honey—half for me, half for you, remember? Hussein, of course, does not take Hatidze’s advice, instead selling all the honey in his bee box in bulk to keep his family afloat. This essentially orphans his bees, leaving the agitated, desperate swarm to fight with Hatidze’s bees for already scarce resources.

Yet for a while, there is a sense of peace amid the disturbance to Hatidze’s routine—she delights alongside the family as they watch a sort of rustic wrestling competition among teens. There is a heightened focus on the raw physicality in those scenes, mirrored later in the movie by a macro shot of two bees, violently tangled in a similar manner—what is seen as sport by humans can appear as systemic disarray in nature.

The vastness of Malika’s world in the middle of the Sahara is nothing like the vastness portrayed in Hatidze’s Macedonian village. It is a whole lot of nothingness; the cars and trucks that pass through her little sector of the highway are almost unbearably loud, sounding more like jet engines rippling through the hot desert air. She’s been there for a quarter-century, giving wanderers a place to share stories, sip tea, and mop some scrambled eggs with stale pieces of French bread. 143 Sahara Street made its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Ferhani noted in a Q&A session that the filming process (which took several months) was simple: Ferhani, his sound engineer, and Malika would sit together, waiting (drinking what Ferhani estimates as 15 cups of coffee a day) for reality to come to them—an inverted road trip movie.

Malika engages in conversation with holy men, with a traveling band of musicians, with a European woman traveling the world by motorbike. In broken French, the woman and Malika sit at a table and parry miscommunications with each other; the woman insists on showing Malika pictures of her parents, when what Malika wants is to buy her phone. Each visitor leaves a little snapshot of their lives at the café, but specific details of Malika’s life are few and far between during the documentary’s 100-minute running time. There are clues, though: She hints at an estrangement from her family, with whom she’d cut off communication; she hints at struggles she’s had with men of a nearby town called El Menia (“two-legged wolves,” she calls them). But Ferhani noted that he made a conscious effort to keep the movie rooted in the present, and left moments of ambiguity as they are. In one scene, a hiply dressed man reads Malika the news before eventually mentioning his quest to find his missing brother. She hears him out for a while before jarring him from his own story by suggesting that his brother might’ve been kidnapped and killed. As the shaken man hitchhikes his way away from Malika’s café, she tells Ferhani that he’d fabricated the entire story, and so she toyed with him, lying in turn. What isn’t disclosed is what part of her story is real and what isn’t. “People lie,” Malika says, “But they don’t know how.”

All the while, a truck stop, complete with a gas station and a restaurant, is being built in her backyard. Malika has lived in the middle of the Sahara for decades, so she’s come to understand its rhythms and demands; she isn’t sold on the truck stop’s commercial viability, but its presence nonetheless plants seeds of anxiety. Several regulars—transient souls for whom she’d become a fixture—hope to quell her concerns. One recurring guest is author Chawki Amari, who introduced Ferhani to Malika after writing a novel based on his experiences documenting life on the Trans-Saharan Highway; their rapport is evident, and makes up some of the most poignant scenes of the movie, including a bit of prison role play wherein Amari steps outside the hut behind barred windows, pretending to be Malika’s son. At one point, with both Amari and Malika seated at the table facing the camera, he calls her “the gatekeeper of the void.”

Neither Honeyland nor 143 Sahara Street tackle head-on the broader ramifications of capitalism encroaching on each protagonist’s way of life, but perhaps doing so would be doing a disservice to the two respective leading women. It’s not that their lives are at odds with the ways of the present: Hatidze travels into the city of Skopje by train to sell her honey and indulges in boxes of industrial hair dye; Malika eventually gets a cellphone of her own. Modernity can be an all-consuming wave, but through Hatidze and Malika, we find survivors on the very fringes of the world, holding on, taking from the world only what they need, in spite of everything.