I cry easily during movies. Sometimes just the fluttering crescendo of a violin makes me start to well up. It’s one thing for me to feel sentimental about a heart wrenching scene or a particularly moving line of dialogue, but some of the new movies that came out in 2019 did more than just wrap themselves around my heart. Especially in last year’s documentary releases, I found myself leaving movie theaters feeling like a weight had been lifted off of my chest. I was breathing more easily thanks to an undeniable moment of emotional catharsis I experienced watching films like Honeyland and For Sama.

In Honeyland, Hatidze Muratova is the last Macedonian wild beekeeper of her generation and lives peacefully with her elderly mother in a solitary village on the outskirts of Skopje. When a migrant family moves in beside her and exploits Hatidze’s kindness by depleting and destroying the bees for profit, she must adapt and confront her human relationships, her relationships to the environment, and her understanding of the modern experience of life. In For Sama, a journalist documents her journey beginning as a radical student activist to a journalist chronicling life in rebel-occupied Aleppo and the civilian hospital run by her husband. As the title suggests, the film serves as a reflexive document of the events for co-director Waad al-Kateab’s daughter, who was born in rebel-occupied Aleppo. While For Sama and Honeyland document completely different subjects using completely different techniques, both films portray a complementary feeling through their emotionally-driven narratives. Each documentary crafts its story through the particular gaze of a woman which uniquely cultivates each subject’s power as an individual.

In For Sama, al-Kateab’s reflexive method of exploring her emotional experience of living in Aleppo during the uprising reclaims a sense of power in the face of a regime that forces her to leave the city. Throughout the documentary, al-Kateab comments on scenes through reflexive voiceover narration. After spending another day filming new patients brought into the hospital, al-Kateab films Sama in a tender close up while confessing in voiceover: “I feel I’m suffocating, Sama. I keep seeing you down there like that boy and me like his mother. I can’t tell Hamza. I can’t even bear to tell myself.” This reflection reveals her fears of losing Sama beneath the brave face al-Kateab puts on as a journalist and supportive partner. It’s a startling confession of fear especially when she cannot even bear to admit it to herself. At this moment, even al-Kateab’s most private thoughts seem to be working against her. While this statement clarifies the truth about how she felt when she first created the footage, it also nurtures a moment for her newborn daughter to empathize with her mother’s choices. By making this confession reflexively during the documentary rather than while filming, it creates a space for al-Kateab to give voice to a much needed, cathartic expression of her fears. By taking the time to reflect on the full range of her emotional experience throughout her time as a journalist within and outside rebel-occupied Aleppo, al-Kateab helps herself process the traumatic experiences and educates future generations as well as outsiders about what it means to be a rebel against the Assad regime. Instead of allowing herself to be reduced to an image summarizing conflict which can be appropriated by an outsider’s gaze, she prioritizes a deeply personal engagement with these events. Most of all, this reflexive technique allows al-Kateab to hold on to her own sense of agency as a representative subject of the film.

Al-Kateab films herself in the side-view mirror of a car.

At the end of the documentary, al-Kateab walks through the demolished streets of east Aleppo with Sama strapped to her chest. The image widens until she and her daughter become small specks moving through the labyrinthine streets of the city. Looking down at them from above, this view echoes an earlier voiceover in the film when al-Kateab explains that “Sama” means ‘star,’ a name she and her husband chose to represent all the beauty that’s visible in the sky above Aleppo without the obstruction of warplanes. By ending the documentary with this image, al-Kateab concludes that not only does she have faith that she will return to a free and safe Aleppo, but that she will return with a new generation that reflects on their parents’ fight for their rights while experiencing all of the colors of life in their reclaimed city. This image wraps up on a hopeful note, but also continues the film’s assertion of the individual’s right over their own representation. Al-Kateab confidently strides forward with her gaze fixed firmly toward her beloved city. This claim on a sense of personal agency is what makes For Sama resonate to a worldwide audience and serves as a parallel to Honeyland’s narrative.

Al-Kateab carries Sama through Aleppo.

From the start, Honeyland directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s narrative presents Hatizde’s tenderness as a radical act against restrictive family norms. Although Hatidze seems to befriend her new neighbors almost as soon as they move in next door, tensions inevitably rise between them when the patriarch of the family exploits Hatidze’s knowledge. Initially, Hatidze invites him and some of his sons to learn about her process of wild beekeeping. One of the younger sons in particular becomes completely enthralled with her careful method of sharing the bees’ honey and taking precautions to keep the bees comfortable. Meanwhile, the father’s anxiety about making sure that he is able to feed each member of his family from the profits of their beekeeping grows and causes him to aggressively prod his bees to produce more and more honey. As the bees swarm and sting him, he urges his children to act just as aggressively. The younger son becomes so fed up with his father’s hubris that he storms off to join Hatidze on a calm walk through the desert to check on a hive of wild bees. Later, while the two rest in a cave, he vents his frustrations with his father to Hatidze’s kind, listening ear. This becomes one of the most tender moments throughout the whole film as Hatidze, who has no children of her own, most clearly appears as the boy’s friend. In essence, her approach to working with the bees opens a space for the boy to explore his own sensitivity away from the domineering gaze of his father. While the boy’s father imposes an idea of masculine duty onto him, Hatidze does not tell the boy what he must become. Instead, she grants him the space to explore his feelings. Just as she shares her space with the bees and nurtures their ability to create something beautiful and unique to their experience, she also welcomes this boy into this nurturing environment. More so, the documentary’s depiction of Hatidze’s tenderness toward the world around her depicts a radical way of modern living.

Hatidze teaches the neighboring children about wild beekeeping.

Throughout Honeyland’s story, Hatidze’s sensitivity towards her environment expresses a unique interaction with the encroaching demands of the contemporary world. To make solitary life out in the rural expanse feel slightly smaller after the migrant family leaves, she extends her radio’s signal range using a long pole and a metal plate. When she holds it up just right, she finds the clearest sound of music her radio has been able to produce yet. The loud voices coming from the radio serve as reminder of the other people that inhabit the towns and cities not so distant from her lonely village. Actually, the documentary refuses to let us forget these distant people and their technology in other images such as a plane crossing the sky much faster than Hatidze climbing a rocky hill, or reoccuring dialogue in which the migrant family’s father focuses on profit to be able to feed his large family. But when we see Hatidze return to her patient method of wild beekeeping while also trying to extend her radio signal, it does not appear as a juxtaposition between technological progress and the lack of it in rural life. On the other hand, it shows Hatidze’s individual priorities. Her engagement with modern technology is not as a subject of the modern capitalistic experience, but as one person seeking a way to connect herself to others. The portrayal of this moment in Hatidze’s life after the family leaves emphasizes Hatidze’s understanding of her own emotions and desires. Even her method of carefully sharing the bees’ resources shows her awareness of another life’s boundaries and desires. Whether or not she is directly aware of it, she engages with the fact that every living thing’s feelings and desires are inextricably intertwined with each other in the modern age. 

Hatidze sits inside her home.

Both For Sama and Honeyland portray different subjects inhabiting very specific moments within modern history, but they both prioritize a representation of their subjects’ emotional experiences of events. By carving individualistic impressions of each person, these documentaries ultimately grant them the space to act as sculptors of their own narrative. In For Sama, al-Kateab stakes her claim toward her own image by undercutting the representation of her life with reflexive commentary. Meanwhile, Honeyland grants Hatidze Muratova the opportunity to tell her own story and suggests ways in which anyone can reframe their approach to the environment they inhabit.

After I first watched each of these documentaries, I was struck by the power that each woman seemed to retain. I felt that their sense of agency rooted in something familiar and unintrusive, wholly unique to the idea of control usually imposed on the representative space of film. All women inhabit an interior environment that confines them by social norms, but using the gaze they develop within this space is its own form of power. This gaze, that notices the intricacies of everyday life and illuminates the colors of human experience, is one which can be used to retain each person’s individual complexities and amplify their voices. In the end, nurturing a space in which one can express and explore their emotions is a radical act against the modern systems that exploit each person’s time and sense of individuality.

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Lora Maslenitsyna is a Staff Writer at Scratch Cinema. She writes about documentary films and television. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd @truelora

Lora Maslenitsyna is a Staff Writer at Scratch Cinema. She writes about documentary films and television. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd @truelora