From "Honeyland" - Sundance Film Festival/Samir Ljuma

From "Honeyland" - Sundance Film Festival/Samir Ljuma

Hatidze is the last honey hunter from North Macedonia – an ancient trade based on a delicate balance with nature. The "Honeyland" documentary, awarded three times at the Sundance Film Festival, tells her incredible story

04/04/2019 -  Ilcho Cvetanoski Skopje

"If one breaks the rule, everyone pays the price": this is the motto of “Honeyland”, a North-Macedonia award-winning documentary about the last female bee-hunter in Europe. The documentary, described by film critics as “visually poetic”, “cinema that cinephiles have patiently awaited for years”, and “an absolute must-see”, tells about the tension between nature and humankind, harmony and discord, exploitation and sustainability.

Through the main character’s naturalistic and responsible life philosophy, authors Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska deliver a vivid, multifaced critic of unsustainable and greedy exploitation.

The universal message of the documentary was highly appreciated by this year's Sundance Film Festival jury. For the first time, as the authors of “Honeyland” emphasised during a press conference in Skopje, a documentary won three awards at Sundance – namely, the grand jury prize for best documentary and special jury awards for cinematography and originality.

The tension between nature and humankind

The documentary was filmed in Bekirlija, an isolated mountain village in the central part of North Macedonia. With no roads, electricity, or running water, the village is cut off from modern civilisation. The closest town, Shtip, is 20 kilometres away and is accessible only by foot or off-road vehicle. Therefore, there are only two permanent inhabitants in Bekirlija: the documentary's main character Hatidze Muratova and her ailing mother Nazife, both members of the Yuruk community, a Turkish ethnic subgroup.

The story revolves around Hatidze, the last wild beekeeper, and her life philosophy on the exploitation of the natural resources. She has been making a living by farming honey and selling it in the closest city for her whole life, following one simple, but crucial rule – take half the honey and leave the other half to the bees. This rule was followed for generations, securing their existence.

Yet, her peaceful existence and work ethics are shattered by the arrival of an itinerant family, with its roaring engines, seven rambunctious children, and herd of cattle. Soon Hussein, the family’s patriarch, senses opportunity and develops an interest in selling his own honey, and he casts Hatidze’s advice aside in his hunt for profit.

This causes a breach in the natural order that provokes a conflict with Hatidze, exposing the fundamental tension between her life philosophy of harmony and sustainability and the exploitation mindset. Hatidze’s story is a microcosm for a wider idea of how closely intertwined nature and humanity are, and how much we stand to lose if we ignore this fundamental connection.

The filming

The filming started in 2015 and ended in 2018. According to the authors of the documentary, the initial idea was to shot a short-commissioned video about the biodiversity of the Bregalnica river. However, as time went by, the idea evolved into something more serious.

“Once we met Hatidze and got introduced to her unique business model – take half and leave half – the idea developed into something more serious”, Stefanov and Kotevska said during a press conference in Skopje, adding that Hatidze is a very positive human being open to new experiences.

Once the crew arrived in Bekirlija, she told them that it was her dream for someone to film her work and save it from vanishing. Yet, it took them several months to establish more profound contact with the other characters in the movie.

“During those three years, while we were recording the documentary, we slept in tents in the village”, said Atanas Georgiev, producer and editor of Honeyland, whilst other crew members, through laughter, added that cats were eating their food, roosters woke them in the morning, and fleas bit them.

“During the filming we did not use any protection from the bees and luckily we did not have any troubles. Only the cinematographer was stung several times during the filming”, said director of photography Samir Ljuma, adding that they became one big family with Hatidze.

“We ate together, drank together, sang together, cried together during all these years”, said Ljuma, adding that during the filming period they witnessed the death of Nazife, Hatidze’s mother.

The filming was challenging, considering there is no electricity and no roads to the village. One of the major issues was how to recharge the camera batteries. The initial idea was not to overuse the camera, to start recording only when the situation was perfect, but they soon realised that they would need to find another solution. Therefore, the crew bought an electric power aggregator.

“We were filming in continuity for six months and then we would go back in Skopje for several months. Once we had new information about the honey cycle from Hatidze, we would go back to film that. And it was like this for three years”, Georgiev said.

As Hatidze uses an ancient Turkish vernacular no one in the film crew knew, the conversation in the movie is set to a minimum and images, instead of words, tell the story. In 2018, with over 400 hours of raw material, the initial idea finally developed into full documentary. Those 400 hours would be edited by Georgiev into 85 minutes.

Three awards at the Sundance Film Festival

The premiere of the documentary was at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The crew went with a secret hope for maybe one award, a hope that grew stronger after reactions by the audience and movie critics.

In his review for “Variety”, for example, Guy Lodge wrote that Honeyland “as a plain environmental allegory blossoms without contrivance from the cracks, Stefanov and Kotevska’s ravishingly shot debut accrues a subtle power that will be felt by patient festival audiences, though only refined boutique distributors need apply”.

During the filming nights, as the crew reminisces, the theatre was full and there were more people outside waiting for a free spot than inside. Following the positive reception, Georgiev said that they secretly started hoping for two awards, something that rarely happens at Sundance. “But three awards, well that never happened before”, Georgiev says through a smile.

Take half, but leave the other half

However, what really distinguishes Honeyland is its universal message about human behaviour towards nature and earth resources. As Hatidze is facing the destruction of the centuries old natural balance between bees and humans, she is forced to intervene and save the bees from the profit-driven nomadic beekeepers that invade her land and threaten her livelihood.

“We want to use the documentary as a tool in our mission to change the human perception of the natural environment and how they are treating it”, said Stefanov, adding that it was a huge surprise for them when they first saw how Hatidze relates to the bees. In the beginning, as Kotevska explained, they thought it was some kind of tradition or ceremony, without paying too much attention to it. However, once they understood what was behind the idea of “take half, but leave the other half”, the documentary was born.

Hatidze, like the previous generations of wild beekeepers, could easily take the whole honey for herself and have an extra profit for one year. But the bees would die without their half of the honey, leaving Hatidze empty-handed the following year. This simple rule about sustainability and responsibility for others is what drives Hatidze in her daily quest.

“Human greed is a major threat for nature and humankind's existence”, said Stefanov, adding that Honeyland could easily be about the trees and not the bees. The message that the movie is sending is that fair, responsible use of natural resources is of crucial importance.  

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