At the recently-concluded JIO MAMI Film Festival, when the screening of their remarkable observational documentary, Honeyland ended, Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska placed a bowl of honey on a table on the stage. Like bees, audience members swarmed to the front, buzzing with approval as they dipped and swirled wooden coffee stirrers in the amber liquid before bringing it to their mouths. A drop of gold on the tip of one’s tongue, its sweetness warm and lingering, much like the film itself. In that moment, one felt as though the story of 55-year-old
Hatidze Muratova, perhaps the last of the nomadic beekeepers of Macedonia, had come full circle. “This story began more than four years ago. If you ask us how we found Hatidze — the bees brought us to her,” says Kotevska, in a conversation after the screening of the documentary. Since its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it picked up three awards including the Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema Documentary), Honeyland has enthralled audiences at film festivals all over the world; at MAMI, it won the Golden Gateway Award in the international competition category.
Shot by cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma, Honeyland begins with Hatidze’s trek from her barren village to the hills nearby, where she cracks open crevices where wild bees flit between honeycombs. “In the beginning, we had been commissioned to shoot a video about a certain rural area in Macedonia by the Nature Conservation Programme. When we began our research, the first thing we noticed were the beehives, and they led us to Hatidze.
Very quickly, it became clear to us that she was going to be the main topic. We became addicted to her story and tried finding ways to keep expanding the production schedule so that we could keep filming her,” says Stefanov, who is an environmentalist, designer and photographer. “Hatidze always wanted somebody to tell her story, and she trusted us with it. This is very precious in documentaries. We shot 400 hours of material for approximately 100 days, shooting with two DSLR cameras in natural light. There’s no electricity in her village, so we depended on nature as much as she did,” says Kotevska.
It would be unwise to categorise Honeyland as one thing or another — it is large and contains multitudes. On the surface, it is about Muratova’s life in an abandoned village, filled with hardship and poverty, as she harvests honey from wild bees to sell in a nearby city. Living in a stone hut with her ailing, bedridden 85-year-old mother, it is the story of two women bound by blood and circumstance, who must rally each other to make the most of what life has given them.
When a Turkish family moves into the farm next to Muratova’s house, cacophony and catastrophe enters her life in equal measure — Hussein, a father of seven, must feed his wife and children and the honey business offers him a chance to make a quick buck. “Half for them, half for us,” says Muratova, in one of the early scenes in the film, when she extracts two out of four honeycombs from the wall of an abandoned farm, for she knows that her survival depends on the survival of the bees. But when Hussein hastens to increase his produce, only to wreak havoc on a fragile ecosystem that depends on sharing nature’s bounty equally, Honeyland becomes a warning sign about the tenuous balance between industrialisation and sustainability.
“We chose not to intervene in any of the events that took place in the course of those four years. As documentary filmmakers, we are not there to change her reality, rough as it is; we believe that by showing it truthfully, we can send a wider message to the world,” says Kotevska.
Muratova’s weather-beaten face and humility did not just captivate them; in 2017, the duo applied to the Sarajevo Film Festival under the ‘Work in Progress’ section, where they won an award of 30,000 euros.
“We used the money to buy a house for Hatidze in a nearby village and fit it with modern appliances; we’ve also used some of the money to help Hussein’s children with things for school, and farming equipment. Additionally, we’ve launched a project to help sell 30 gm jars of Hatidze’s honey on our website,” says Stefanov. It’s a shame that the product only ships to the US, the EU, Canada and Macedonia — which makes tasting it at MAMI all the more sweet.
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