The word "documentary" covers a lot of ground - far too much, really - and as such, a filmmaker can do a whole lot of different things. But as someone whose heart belongs to editing, and the belief that at the end of the day, all footage is just footage, and can be shaped into a cinematic object that will have an intellectual and/or emotional effect on the viewer regardless of where that footage came from, I think that some of my favorite documentaries are the ones that do the fewest "documentaryish" things. You know, talking heads interviews, on-screen graphics, narration explaining what we're looking at, that sort of thing. Just show me the footage, pretty please, molded into a form that speaks for itself.

I bring this up because 2019 has yielded two uncommonly excellent variations on the form. Back in the spring, we got Apollo 11, a tremendous exercise in carving a sleek, coherent, and exciting narrative about the first manned mission to the surface of the moon out of an unfathomable mountain of stock footage and audio. And now we get Honeyland, which is crucially different in one major respect: all of the footage was shot for the specific purpose of making this film by directors Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov and cinematographers Fejmi Daut & Samir Ljuma. But, again, footage is footage. And like Apollo 11, what impresses me most about Honeyland is how successfully it has been shaped into a story: if I didn't know for a certainty that it is depicting the real lives of real people, I'd assume without bothering to think twice that it was a conventionally scripted art film. But it's not (even though I am close to certain that a couple of moments were staged, or at least heavily contrived in the editing), and that knowledge somehow gives the things we see in the movie a huge charge. It is beyond captivating as we watch people, one person especially, go through about their business while we peer around them and over their shoulders trying grasp what they're up to. We don't need to have anything explained to us, and in fact virtually nothing ever is. We learn so much about this place and its inhabitants simply from seeing what they do, and the net result is a powerful story of time passing, traditions dying, greed destroying the world, arrogance smothering wisdom that's all the more powerful since the film doesn't ever once say any of those things out loud - and if all that's too much, it's just a damn satisfying procedural about how traditional bee husbandry is practiced in the Macedonian mountains. In fact, high among the list of pleasures Honeyland has to offer is the revelation the phrase "traditional Macedonian beekeeping" is hiding one of the most visually beautiful, even exhilarating movies of 2019.

The beekeeper in question is Haditze Muratova, a woman in her 50s, living alone but with her aging, ill mother in a very small, practically abandoned village near enough to the capital city of Skopje that she can get there and back in the same day to sell her wares. Those wares being jars of raw honey, harvested from wild bees; for the tradition in question involves letting the bees find their own natural homes in the rocky landscape, and going to them. Which is no mean feat: the film's very first sequence finds Haditze scaling a narrow mountain path, looming over a valley, to harvest a single honeycomb from a hive living in a chunk of loose rock. She has less treacherous hives as well, including one in the stone fence on her own property, but by starting the film with such a dramatic, precipitous location, the Honeyland filmmakers create an indelible sense of their subject as a woman of unfathomable resolve and casual bravery, as much an adventurer as a simple agrarian. Not to mention, they also immediately start mounting the argument that the landscape that Haditze works in and through is a place of great inherent value, dramatically beautiful and blessed with some of the most painterly sunlight you could ever hope to see in a motion picture.

The film finds the Muratovas joined by new neighbors, the Sams - like them, Turks living in a region that Turks have mostly departed from. Perhaps for this reason, Haditze is inclined towards friendliness at first, cooing over the children and especially the adolescent son who is obviously dazzled by her experienced wisdom, and seeks to apply some of it to his own life. But somewhere along the way, paterfamilias Hussein decides that he can help augment his family's insufficient income by getting into the honey trade himself, and his impatience to get a good harvest - born of extreme desperation, to be fair - puts the entire local bee ecology at risk.

Honeyland is unbelievably generous. Given all of the above, you can look at the film as a story of environmental crisis, or about the hungry maw of capitalism demanding sacrifice, or the new ways carelessly steamrolling over delicate old traditions, or male arrogance turning its back on female wisdom. Or you could also watch it as a sweet and sorrowful fable about having lousy neighbors and having a tough time of growing old. It doesn't insist upon anything; this is, indeed, fundamental to how it has been constructed by the directors and editor Atanas Georgiev. The film is entirely observational: nobody who isn't a small child ever interacts with the camera, though it moves in very close to its human and non-human subjects at times. Nobody explains; when Haditze is out by herself, she doesn't speak a word, instead simply doing the things she does, and it's entirely up to us to make sense of her actions. The result is a film that's a perpetual act of discovery, as we learn new things about the people, the place, and the act of beekeeping. It gives us access to some remarkably small, intimate moments as a result (not all of them about humans, either; there's a shot of a mother cow with her newborn calf that's one of the tenderest things I have seen in a movie all year). It never feels voyeuristic, though; the film seems almost as comfortable in the landscape as Haditze herself, so when Hussein Sam and his brood come bumbling in, they feels as disruptive to the organic flow of the movie as to Haditze's life. That the film achieves this while also making it very clear why Hussein and his wife Ljutvie feel as they do, panic as they do, and make the mistakes that they do, is something close a miracle; it's sympathetic and critical, understanding but also disappointed.

But mostly, it is reflective. There is a sense in which the whole film is about accepting loss: things change, sometimes for the worse, and one can either be sad or stalwart when that happens. So be stalwart. For it is also a film about the beauty of moments, from the most grand to the most quiet and domestic; appreciate the moments, it seems to say, and keep collecting them as long as you can. I have no idea if that's anything like Haditze Muratova's own life philosophy, but the film's superlative final moments seem to ascribe something like that to her, and it at any rate makes her one of the year's most admirable, interesting human figures in a motion picture.