Honeyland, shortlisted for the 2020 Best Feature Doc and Best International Feature Oscars, can already claim to be the most popular film in Macedonian cinema history.
Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, the film won three prizes in Sundance. It has now played at around 40 festivals worldwide and it was a huge hit in Macedonia itself, a country where documentaries have little history of attracting cinema audiences.
“This film changed the way people (in Macedonia) approach documentary. It was seen in every small village in the country,” Kotevska remembers. “None of us expected anything that happened. We knew were making a good film but getting three awards never happened in the history of Sundance and it never happened in the history of Macedonian filmmaking. We were completely shocked.”
In making Honeyland, Kotevska and Stefanov spent a small eternity chronicling the life of beekeeper Hatidze Muratova. “It was three years and a hundred shooting days,” Kotevska blithely explains as if spending such a length of time on her subject was only to be expected.
Honeyland starts in spectacular fashion with a sequence which shows Muratova clambering up a mountain ledge to collect honey from a hive high up in the rocks. No, the scene wasn’t staged.
“This was one of the first sequences that we shot,” the director recalls. “She goes there all the time. This is the main cliff where she takes the honey from. We saw this many times in the process of research… That’s when we saw how fascinating this film could be.”
She and the crew went to extreme lengths, dangling from precipices, in order to get the best angle to film the beekeeper.
The documentary makers filmed 400 hours of footage. The arrival of a nomadic family who moved next door to Muratova provided the film with a natural narrative arc. The father of the family starts beekeeping himself but in a reckless way which endangers Muratova’s livelihood.
“The family showed up six months after we had started shooting,” Kotevska remembers. She and Stefanov realised that conflict was brewing and that it was ”crucial” to include the family in the documentary. They were able to win their trust and to start filming them as well.
Although making the documentary meant being surrounded by bees, the filmmakers were never stung. The beekeeper explained how to approach them. “First, you must not take fast movements. You must be very calm. If they stand on your body, you should just be calm and let them go. If you wave with your hands, they might bite you. Her bees are not aggressive because she doesn’t take all the honey from them.” The crew members learned to dress in black, a colour which doesn’t agitate the bees.
Kotevska is full of praise for Muratova’s honey which she describes as the best she has ever tasted. “We took her to a couple of festivals. She was in Sarajevo, Turkey, Switzerland and in New York,” Kotevska says of Muratova who appears to have enjoyed the limelight as much as they did. Did she bring her honey with her? “Yes, she brought her honey everywhere. She was very proud of it (the film) and she enjoyed going to the festivals to share her story personally.”
Now, Kotevska is planning her fiction feature debut. The young Macedonian director (born in 1993) has herself written the screenplay for Stairs, a drama about three generations who “represent connection with their (Macedonian) roots, disconnection with their roots and reconnection with their roots.”
The new film has autobiographical elements but will deal with what Kotevska feels to be universal themes. “I notice this everywhere and this was the inspiration to do it – how roots influence our lives and identities – and how we should behave toward our roots.”
Kotevska will be working with some of the same production partners as on Honeyland but will be directing on her own. It will explore some of the same themes as one her earlier shorts, “Stud-ants” (the title comes from a BBC documentary about an ant experiment), which was about students heading abroad in search of a better a future. The film, which won the Best Balkan Film Award at the Tirana International Documentary Film Festival, brought her together with Stefanov, co-director on Honeyland)
The young filmmaker’s desire to become a documentary maker was sparked when she was an exchange student in Tennessee as a teenager. The culture was so far removed from what she knew in Macedonia that she felt she had landed on Mars.
“It was a bit of a cultural shock. I realised that real life is very exciting, sometimes more than fiction,” she remembers. As an outsider, she looked in at her own experiences living in America from “an objective distance,” as if she was watching a film. “You pay a lot more attention to the people around you. It changed my way of thinking about reality!”