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'Honeyland': A Mesmerizing Film on Humans, Nature and Bees

By Darianna Cardilli

From Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska's 'Honeyland.'

"I take half, and I leave half" is the wise refrain, often repeated by Hatidze Muratova, apiarist and central character in Honeyland, one of the most honored films of 2019. The documentary, by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, kicked off the year by garnering three awards at the Sundance Film Festival: the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema and Special Jury Awards for Cinematography and Impact for Change. At year's end, among many other accolades, the film won two IDA Documentary Awards: the Pare Lorentz Award and the Best Cinematography Award. And now, completing the trajectory that began at Sundance, Honeyland has earned two Academy Award nominations, for Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film.

The film centers on Hatidze, who lives in an abandoned village nestled in a remote, arid mountain region of Macedonia. She ekes out a meager living cultivating honey using ancient beekeeping traditions, while taking care of her ailing, bedridden mother. Her lonely, yet peaceful, existence is disrupted when a large, boisterous nomadic family, along with its equally noisy herd of cattle,  moves next door. Their companionship, which at first she welcomes, comes at a price when they also want to practice beekeeping.

Hatidze has tremendous respect for the bees and nature, and that respect is mutual as she slips her calloused hands into beehives without getting stung.

Being childless herself, she takes a liking to the youngest son of the Sam family, teaching him the ancient beekeeping traditions. But to Hussein, the family patriarch, bees are just animals to be exploited, like his herd of emaciated cows. His willful disregard for Hatidze’s advice, borne out of inexperience, greed and desperation to feed his large brood, results in disastrous consequences for her livelihood.

Documentary interviewed co-directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska. Asked how they encountered such a unique and fascinating character, Stefanov explains, "This is our second film with the same crew. We had made a 30-minute film called Lake of Apples. And while we were finishing that film, we started exploring the area to find a good topic for an environmental short film for the Nature Conservation Project [NCP] in Macedonia. And we found the holes in the rocks with the bees, and soon after we found that abandoned village with Hatidze."

But Kotevska hastens to add, "The only journalist who had the chance to interview her in person so far is a Korean journalist, who after the London screening flew to Macedonia to meet her. And when he asked Hatidze, 'How did they find you?' she responded, 'They didn't find me, I found them.' So this explains a lot about the person we had the opportunity to work with. She was very ready to tell this story to the world, and she enjoyed the process together with us, which is usually important for a documentary because if you don't have cooperation from the main characters, you cannot have a film."

The film is a visual feast, imbued with rich golden hues. It was shot entirely on DSLRs, in observational style, totaling 100 days of filming over a period of three years. The crew had to endure harsh and grim filming conditions—no water, no shelter, no electricity. Stefanov points out that "the filming sessions were three to four days maximum. We would bring food for just two days as it would last only two days. There's no refrigerator and during the summer it is very hot." Kotevska adds, "The place is completely uninhabitable to most people. There's no place to shower or sleep. It's impossible to go there on roads and it’s so inaccessible."

Stefanov clarifies, "The shoot was made with a relatively small budget from the Nature Conservation Program. We applied to National Film Fund and to SFFILM Doc Film Fund in post-production, after the filming was finished."

The sparse dialogue in the film is all in ancient Turkish vernacular, which the crew does not speak. But the language barrier provided certain opportunities. According to Kotevska, "It turned out that it was better that we didn't understand what they were talking about because we were able to focus on body language and visuals. And this created a film that is more intimate and more understandable because it’s a reminder of the basic way of communication between people, which is nonverbal.

"And this way of working continued in the editing phase. We started editing on mute, before we had the translations," Kotevska continues. "We created a rough cut on mute, just visually, and then when we got the translations we just filled the scenes. We just took the right dialogue, the right comment. And for us this was like watching a new film; we discovered so many valuable sentences and moments, and dialogue later that occurred between the protagonists. And it just added beauty to the whole project."

The parallels between humans and bees are evident: Hatidze is the worker bee—industrious, dedicated, selfless, nourishing her sickly elderly mother, who, just like the queen, never leaves the hive. The Sam family is the enemy bee colony, attacking and destroying her hive.

Kotevska explains, "From the first moment we met Hatidze, for us it was obvious the resemblance between her and the worker bee, and her mother being the queen bee that never abandons the house, whom she has to take care of. And the neighbors are the other group of bees, who attack each other when they're on the same territory. So we really liked this metaphor and we started to follow it, but we didn’t want to make it too obvious."

'Honeyland' directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, following a screening at the IDA Screening Series.

Very early on, showings of the raw footage met with great interest. But the filmmakers went one step beyond that. As Stefanov recounts, "In 2017 we went to the Sarajevo Film Festival, and we were participating there as a work in progress, with only a rough assembly of our material, as we hadn't started editing yet. And we won some funds, and with the first money we won, from Sarajevo, we bought Hatidze a house in the nearby village. As it was her wish to have a house in that village, where her relatives are."

The film is a poetic exploration of the conflict between ancient traditions, which are respectful of nature, and brash, modern consumerism. Stefanov explains, "The scene where she takes the honey and says to the bees, 'Half for me, half for you'—we shot that during the first week of filming and it was clear for us that it would be the main environmental point in the film. That 'half for me, half for you' is basically the Nagoya Protocol and one of the United Nations Millenium goals."

The Nagoya Protocol, established in 1993 at the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, set up guidelines for access to natural resources, with the aim of fair and equitable share of benefits for both providers (land, plants, animals) and users.

Stefanov continues, "Equal share of benefits between users which are humans, and providers, which is nature, in this case bees. So the film is not about the bees. It's about the simple example of someone respecting that rule of natural resource use, in order to ensure her security. So the main environmental problem of today, which our film addresses, is the overuse of natural resources. Also, our film shows in a very, very simple way the spiral of greediness: one person from the outside comes with money, one person who needs the money takes everything from nature, and in the end everybody will suffer."

Honeyland is a microcosm of what is happening to the planet, whether it's bees or forests or the ocean. It illustrates the link between nature and mankind, and the dire consequences when we ignore this delicate relationship.

Despite the very challenging filming conditions, the filmmakers came away with valuable and memorable experiences. As Kotevska recalls, "We learned that we can live without technology, that the world doesn't need technology, because these people live just fine the way they did, and we discovered a way of living that's very free."

"Not only technology," Stefanov adds, "but we are living with so much consumerism—it doesn't matter whether you're in Macedonia or in the US or Japan or Switzerland, our consumerism is such that probably 90 percent of things we buy, things we use, things we eat, we don't need."

Kotevska concludes, "And the most important thing that we learned is that in terms of us as filmmakers, patience and persistence are the main keys to every powerful film story."


Darianna Cardilli is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker and editor. Her work has aired on Bravo, A&E, AMC and The History Channel. She recently completed editing the documentary feature 8 Billion Angels.