The original intent of this documentary differed from the final results. In 2015, the project began as a government-sponsored short aiming to depict a rural region in central North Macedonia and show how the country’s natural resources should be preserved. The river Bregalnica runs through this area and directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov arrived there getting to know the people who inhabited the land. That’s when they met Hatidze Muratova, and everything changed.
Harvesting honey in remote areas
Hatidze was a rare thing, a wild beekeeper who harvested honey in remote, mountainous areas and sold it at a market in Skopje. She lived together with her 85-year-old blind mother in abject poverty, in a hut with no running water or access to electricity. Her mother, who was almost deaf, depended on her completely. The filmmakers found Hatidze’s life compelling and stayed with her for three years, shooting many hours of footage. After a while, the structure of the documentary began to take shape. There’s a scene in the film that the directors realized was key to the whole project; it mirrored Hatidze’s attitude to her surroundings and the nature that she co-existed with. In the scene, when she’s harvesting honey, she says to the bees: ”half for me, half for you”. Hatidze learned her line of work from her grandfather and he explained to her how this balance must be maintained for the bees to thrive.
Her situation is challenged by her new neighbors, rowdy Turkish nomads who arrive with a caravan and cattle. They are husband and wife with several noisy, rebellious children. The man of the house also brings apiaries. A need of money makes him ignore his neighbor Hatidze’s wise advice and harvest all the honey, bringing misery…
Hair-raising first scene
The first scene of the film is hair-raising, as Hatidze walks a narrow path high up on a mountain, removes a piece of rock and starts taking out honeycombs, bees buzzing around her. One mistake and she’ll fall to her death. No wonder that we’re constantly amazed at everything this woman does. As we get to know her, we understand that life hasn’t always turned out the way she wanted, that she made sacrifices in order to help her ailing mother. Their relationship is full of love, but also the kind of familiar annoyances that every family shares. Hatidze’s relationship with her insufferable neighbors is often genial as well; she clearly likes children and they get along with her.
The problem is that the mother and father of the family are not very good at what they’re doing. It’s not just the bees, a situation that hits Hatidze financially, but the cattle also end up suffering. That family turns into a symbol of how not to live in harmony with nature, in contrast with Hatidze, but at the same time, taking part of their lives also becomes an enlightening look at a different aspect of the poverty all these people share. It’s easy to view the neighbors as villains, but they’re also trying to survive.
The filmmakers shared all of three years with Hatidze, but in editor and co-producer Atanas Georgiev’s hands the story turns into a fascinating, entertaining and moving film that requires just 89 minutes to get its message and purpose across.
After getting to know Hatidze in the movie, it’s a relief to read about how how she was able to move out of her hut and into a proper house. She also got to sample Oscar glamour in Los Angeles when the movie was nominated earlier this year. With all this in mind, I’m sure her bond with the bees still remains solid.
Honeyland 2019-North Macedonia. 89 min. Color. Produced by Atanas Georgiev, Ljubomir Stefanov. Written and directed by Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov. Editing: Atanas Georgiev.
Last word: “From the very beginning, we wanted the story to feel like fiction, even if it wasn’t. In our minds, the line between documentary and fiction should disappear, a good story is a good story. I was more focused on the people, Ljubomir on the environmental issues. We were always interested in maintaining a perfect balance between the human story and the environmental side. We didn’t want to make a stereotypical documentary with a narrating voice, with interviews etc. We committed to carry on filming until we were sure we had the right amount of material to develop the dramaturgical aspects of the story.” (Kotevska, Cineuropa)