Honeyland directors on their historic double-nominee

February 2, 2020 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this preview with Honeyland directors Ljubomir Stefanov & Tamara Kotevska from Issue 41 – our Oscar issue – of Backstory.

If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

The Nominees: Honeyland
Directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska on their film that became the first to be nominated for both Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature.
By Danny Munso

History is made almost every year at the Oscars but never the kind that Honeyland just landed. Macedonian filmmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s moving documentary has become the first ever nominated for both Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature (the category formerly known as Best Foreign Film). Though it may not take home either statue, the nod is truly a seismic moment for the Academy Awards. If a documentary can be cited as one of the best international films, why couldn’t one eventually be nominated for the highest award of them all, Best Picture. At a minimum, the double nominations have shined a needed spotlight on one of 2019’s most impactful films, one that hammers home the fragile balance between nature and humanity.

Honeyland actually began as a short film. After Stefanov and Kotevska collaborated for the first time on the 2017 environmental documentary short Lake of Apples, they were in search of their next story and were eventually drawn to a remote region in the Balkans. While they were initially there to film something on a river that runs through Macedonia, instead they stumbled on what would become their cinematic gold: man-made beehives throughout the area. That led them to the woman who made them, Hatidze Muratova, who with her blind and elderly mother, Nazife, were pretty much the area’s sole residents and the woman behind the beehives. Ever warm and full of life, Hatidze was more than willing to let the filmmakers into her life, and they were immediately struck by the care she took to support the bees’ way of life. She had built these structures that allowed the honeybees to thrive in their natural colonies even as she farmed their honey to sell at local markets. In a region without electricity, the beekeeping was her main source of income, but she loved the vibrantly colored insects dearly. Early in the film, Hatidze can be heard singing to the bees, “Half for you and half for me,” which represents the harmony in the region and also becomes the film’s defacto thesis. Enthralled with Hatidze and her story, the directors set to making a short about Hatidze’s bond with the bees…until the Sam family moved in, and all hell broke loose.

Hussein Sam, his wife and seven children, who lived life as nomadic beekeepers, put down stakes close to Hatidze, and immediately the filmmakers realized trouble had arrived and they were looking at a very different film than they’d planned and that it would be a feature length documentary. “We really didn’t know in the beginning what kind of format this documentary would have,” Kotevska says. “But we gave it patience to see what we could pull off. After six months, the family showed up, and that’s when our structure actually started becoming clear in our heads. Now we had actual conflict with these people, so we started telling this real story of two sides clashing.” But as the Sam family starts doing its business, it’s not the noise and clamoring that disrupts Hatidze. She actually welcomes that, as she has been on her own for a while due to a cultural tradition that the youngest child has to stay behind to care for the parents. So she winds up befriending the family, becoming particularly close with one of the Sam children, who is often in trouble with his parents. It’s when she begins sharing her secrets to prolific honeymaking that things start to go awry. Because of her pleasant disposition, she is more than willing to let the family follow her lead because there are plenty of bees to go around. But Hussein is not as patient as she is and stops heeding her advice. His bees begin interfering with hers, even killing off a large portion of them. In a truly shocking moment late in the film, he cuts down a major tree containing a large beehive to gain access to the honey inside. And as the film would eventually show, it’s clear what they’re trying to communicate: Whereas Hatidze has respect for nature, the Sam family has none.

The brilliance of Honeyland is that it doesn’t condemn the Hussein family. Stefanov and Kotevska take care to show the audience why the outliers are doing these things. “That family is like all of us,” Stefanov says. “They are ordinary people.” At one point in the film, a man who is buying honey from Hussein says that if he produces a certain amount of honey, the man will pay handsomely for it, so Hussein mobilizes without regard for the surrounding nature and—unintentionally—Hatidze. “Imagine if someone came to you and said, ‘If you give me more, I will pay more,’” Stefanov says. “That’s the crucial sentence.” While Hatidze welcomed the filmmakers with open arms, the Hussein family took some convincing. It helped that Honeyland was a small-scale production. Kotevska and Stefanov had just two others with them on their skeleton crew—cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma, who had both worked on Lake of Apples—and that made it easier for the group to blend into the fold. Because of the remoteness of the area, lack of electricity and dearth of food and supplies, they could only film three to four days at a time before restocking. In the end, they shot for 100 days over three years, amassing some 400 hours of footage.

The directors had a unique problem both during filming and especially in the editing room. They were able to communicate to Hatidze and the Sams in their native Macedonian, but when Hatidze and the Sams were communicating with one another they would speak in Turkish, which no one on the crew understood. So when they entered the editing room, they really had no clue what they had from a dialogue perspective. While they were having specific scenes transcribed, those wouldn’t come in for some time, and so they came up with an inventive—and poetic—idea: They began cutting the film with no sound at all. “Once we started editing, we saw that the biggest disadvantage during shooting turned to be the biggest advantage,” Kotevska says. “We had to come up with a solution for how we would edit because if we waited for 400 hours of material to be translated, it would take another year. This brought us to the idea of editing on mute and seeing if we could follow the basic structure of the film visually. This turned out to be the most useful approach because it created a very strong visual identity for the film that speaks for itself.” Once they got the Turkish transcriptions back, Stefanov estimates they only changed about 10 percent of what they had, adding in scenes to capture conversations between characters, most of them between Hatidze and her mother.

A major scene they cut is one the directors thought for a long time would be the film’s final scene. “For a very long time, there was this beautiful scene in the movie,” Kotevska says. “Hatidze brings her mother flowers from the bloom outside. Because the mother is blind she cannot see where or what the flowers are, but she touches each of them with her hand and tries to guess what kind it is from the smell. It was a beautiful scene with beautiful dialogue as she began remembering moments with [Hatidze’s] father when she was younger. For a long time we thought this would be the end of Honeyland, but eventually we left the scene out. Kill your darlings, obviously.” The reason it was ultimately left on the cutting-room floor was because of the event that now closes the film: Hatidze’s mother passes away. Nazife’s death was also the moment the directors knew their story was finished. Because Hatidze is such a dynamic figure, they had been struggling with knowing when to stop filming. “You need to know exactly what your ending point is, and for us that happened when she died. Things were already changing in Hatidze’s life, but those things weren’t a part of this film and this story anymore. It was a new chapter.”

The chapter Kotevska is referencing is one they help her achieve. With their first-prize winning from the Sarajevo Film Festival, the directors bought Hatidze a new house in a nearby village, where is she could be close to her siblings. The filmmakers have also set up a scholarship fund for the Hussein family, who’ve since had one more child and have another on the way. And if you’re reading this before the Oscars, be sure to look out for Hatidze on the red carpet. As for the future, Kotevska and Stefanov are working on separate projects at the moment, though they plan to collaborate again in the near future. Kotevska just received funding to direct a narrative feature, and Stefanov is working on both an animated feature and another documentary. Still, their hearts remain deep in Honeyland and the people they spent so much time filming. Stefanov wraps it up perfectly: “We have changed their life, and they have changed ours.”

If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 41, view our Table of Contents.