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When Your Documentary Looks Like a Renaissance Painting: The Cinematography of “Honeyland”

“Visual and visceral communication draws the audience closer to the protagonists, and more importantly — closer to nature.”

Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, Honeyland, writes Britt Hayes in Birth Movies Death, “explores a world that is both stunning and breathtakingly unfamiliar while telling a story that feels incredibly timely regardless of your country of origin.” The film follows the last female wild beekeeper in Europe, Hatidze Muratova, as she attempts to save the bees and restore the natural balance, when suddenly a family of nomadic beekeepers invade her land, cause a breach in the natural order and threaten her livelihood.

The documentary feature, which was filmed in the mountains of Macedonia, was commissioned by The Nature Conservation Project in Macedonia and funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Distributed by NEON, Honeyland received two Academy Award nominations and won the inaugural Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Documentary at this year’s ASC Awards, among numerous other accolades.

“Honeyland” directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.
“Honeyland” directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.

Honeyland has already made history,” Jake Coyle noted ahead of the Oscars, writing for Shoot Online. “It’s the first film ever nominated for both best documentary and best international film, the category formerly dubbed best foreign language film. The dual honors make Honeyland a quietly revolutionary Oscar nominee, one that speaks to both the increasingly boundless nature of documentary filmmaking and the specific greatness of Honeyland.”

Honeyland is the story of an ecosystem. In its initial moments, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s documentary about a rural beekeeper in the mountains of Macedonia seems like a singular, focused tale: a portrait of a woman performing a near-forgotten art,” David Sims writes in his film review for The Atlantic. “Indeed, the work that the protagonist, Hatidze, does, following ancient honey-harvesting traditions largely unknown to modern audiences, is fascinating enough. But this is the kind of nonfiction film that gets at much bigger truths about the tragic ways in which any environment, no matter how remote, can be thrown off balance by greed.”

“The film is driven by visual narration rather than dialogue, the characters are understood through their body language and their relationships, and their emotions,” Kotevska and Stefanov explain. “This visual and visceral communication draws the audience closer to the protagonists, and more importantly — closer to nature. Engendering the feeling that we as humans are but one species among many, equally affected by the circumstances around us.”

“The opening frames of Honeyland are so rustically sumptuous that you wonder, for a second, if they’ve somehow been art-directed,” writes Guy Lodge in his review for Variety. “Elegantly dressed in a vivid ochre blouse and emerald headscarf, captured in long shot as she nimbly wends her way through a craggy but spectacular Balkan landscape, careworn middle-aged beekeeper Hatidze Muratova heads to check on her remote, hidden colony of bees — delicately extracting a dripping wedge of honeycomb the exact saturated shade as her outfit. With man and nature so exquisitely coordinated, it’s as if Hatidze herself has grown from the same rocky land, and in a sense, she has.”

In this “painstaking observational documentary, everything from the honey upwards is organic,” Lodge continues:

“Shot over three years, with no voiceover or interviews to lead the narrative, Honeyland begins as a calm, captured-in-amber character study, before stumbling upon another, more conflict-driven story altogether — as younger interlopers on the land threaten not just Hatidze’s solitude but her very livelihood with their newer, less nature-conscious farming methods. As a plain environmental allegory blossoms without contrivance from the cracks, Stefanov and Kotevska’s ravishingly shot debut accrues a subtle power.”

“Honeyland” directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.
“Honeyland” directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.

“During the three-year period in which Kotevska and Stefanov filmed, something serendipitous happened,” notes Imogen Sara Smith in her “Phantom Light” column for Film Comment:

“A nomadic family — Hussein and Ljutvie Sam and their seven children — pulled up in a trailer and began living next door to Hatidze. They had a herd of cows and, after observing their neighbor’s success with her honey, decided to keep bees as well — the modern way, in wooden box-like hives. Disregarding Hatidze’s cardinal rule of only taking half of the honey, they sold all of theirs, with the predicted result that their bees attacked hers, causing a total collapse of the local hives. Thus, the film becomes a perfect ecological parable, contrasting a balanced and sustainable relationship with nature and rapacious, short-sighted exploitation.”

“What’s interesting is that Hatidze never told us this explicitly — we observed her way of

working and came to realize the rule,” Kotevska notes. “Hatidze knows if she took all the honey the bees would die out,” Stefanov interjects. “She is the only person respecting this rule — for us this is very, very important. I have a 20-year background working for institutions like United Nations and one of the targets of the UN’s ‘Millennium Goals’ is equal share of benefits — that is, equal share between user (humans, in most cases, man) and provider (nature, or area). Under equal share, if you are using a resource provided by some species or by some ecosystem, or some area, you will have to care for the future of that ecosystem. A lot of what we saw with Hatidze overlapped with this principle.”

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“This all becomes symbolic of capitalism,” Kotevska continues, “and Hussein’s family represents the capitalist world, of wanting to take as many resources as you can so you, personally, will thrive — not

thinking about how this will impact the next generation.”

“It’s beyond political in my opinion,” Stefanov insists, “it touches on very basic things which are so basic as to be fundamental: a way of thinking, a way of being.”

“For me, it was very interesting — I’m a cinematographer, not a biologist,” says cinematographer Samir Ljuma. “We were shooting Hatidze while she was opening these beehives, and everything was new for me. On one occasion I saw that one of the beehives we had shot a week before, it was richer, there was more honey. But another hive, in the same region, had less honey. So, I asked Hatidze: Why more here, less there? She said, ‘Well, it’s like how you have rich families and poor families.’ Then I realized that actually, the bees in a hive are functioning like one family — like humans!”

“We collected over 400 hours of footage, over the course of three years,” Kotevska says of the process of making Honeyland. “For us the dramaturgy was always very clear. From the beginning we wanted to tell a story about this woman and then when Hussein’s family showed up, it became more about the conflict between them and Hatidze, and how that affects the balance of the land,” she explains. “This was all new for all of us, but it just grew — we just went with the flow and decided to go as far as we could with these people,” she notes, adding, “We were a very small crew, a maximum of four people was on site at any time — sometimes less two, sometimes three — depending on the shooting day.”

Assembling Honeyland started while production was still underway, Kotevska recounts. “We realized that was the best way for us. We were able to say: ‘Alright, what are we missing here? We’re missing scenes of the relationship with the children.’ So we would go, find more times, focus on the relationship with them, or their conflicts at home. Different aspects.”

“There is no electricity in the village,” Ljuma tells Emily Buder at No Film School. “The conditions are like in the 18th or 19th century. We discussed whether we could bring some LED lights to support, but we decided [against it]. Today, you can easily push many cameras to a high ISO to get completely noise-free shadows. We decided not to use any kind of additional lighting support, except what was there.”

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“Scenes with Hatidize’s dying mother in the impossibly dark, low-ceilinged interiors of their home have the haunting beauty of a Pedro Costa film, but the lighting conditions were punishing,” Chris O’Falt writes at IndieWire:

“Through trial and error, the filmmakers figured out where to bury themselves in a back corner to get the right shots with no gear beyond the camera. Conversely, daytime shots of Hatidize’s honey collecting routine found angles and angelic light that lent itself to capturing an almost Malick-like spiritual relationship between character and the complex history of the abandoned terrain where she works and lives.”

“Honeyland” directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.
“Honeyland” directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.

“That’s why Honeyland speaks so well to our moment,” John Powers notes over at NPR. “Right now, the world’s bees are being killed off in droves in a mysterious mass carnage known as colony collapse disorder. At the same time, huge parts of the planet are menaced by climate change. And most of the world, not least its leaders, can’t be bothered to appreciate what Hatidze knows in her bones — that the ecosystems which sustain us are interconnected and surprisingly frail.”

Want more on Honeyland? Listen to the review by John Powers on NPR’s Fresh Air in the audio player below: