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How ‘Honeyland’ Documentary Found Its Beekeeping Protagonist in Rural Macedonia

Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov spent three years in the remote countryside of Macedonia to make this Oscar-contending film about beekeeping.

Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov

Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov

International Documentary Association

It took filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov three years of filming in the remote countryside of Macedonia to capture the footage they used in their Sundance-winning documentary, “Honeyland,” about Hatidze Muratova, a rural Macedonian woman who has dedicated her life to beekeeping.

The duo told the audience at the International Documentary Association’s (IDA) annual screening series in Los Angeles they would sleep in tents in their protagonist’s backyard for three to four days at a time for three years, amassing hundreds of hours of footage they would then spend several months sorting through.

Complicating matters: They didn’t speak Turkish, the preferred language of the film’s main subjects — both Hatidze and her new neighbors who moved in a few months into the shoot and disrupted her way of life.

“We don’t understand Turkish. So all the scenes with the dialogue, particularly, we didn’t know what’s going on there. First we spent three and a half months, four months, just watching the material, the whole material. And then we started editing on mute just the visual narrative,” Stefanov explained.

While translators worked to interpret the Macedonian dialect of Turkish the subjects spoke, Stefanov and Kotevska stitched a visual narrative that made sense — and once the translations were added, they were surprised at what they found.

“It was very surprising because we didn’t change what we put on the line. But we were surprised [by] some of those strong sentences we heard. Like, for example, in the winter, when mother said there will be spring, something like that, was very [profound],” he said.

Added Kotevska, “That, for us, made it feel like we [were] watching a new film. And that’s very pleasing in editing because it can become very boring seeing the same stuff again.”

The project originally started as an environmental documentary about the river running through the center of Macedonia, but plans changed when the team discovered the beehives Hatidze tended in remote areas.

“We were very shocked to see this because it was obviously handmade,” said Kotevska, “and we started asking the locals around who they belonged to, who made them, and why. And this is how we came to it. This is how we found our protagonist. So we can probably say that the bees brought us to her.”

Hatidze spent her time caring for both her bees and her mother, and with no spouse or children of her own, took some of the neighbor kids under her wing.

“She’s the only one remaining in this village to take care of her mother, because in the old tribe that she belongs to it’s a tradition that the last female takes care over the parents and doesn’t have a family of her own,” Kotevska. But she wasn’t shy, and eventually allowed Kotevska and Stefanov to film her. “The first reaction to her was probably a shock. And then she said that this is something she was thinking of a lot — how to find a way to tell her story to the world. So this is her wish, in a way. So she was very happy to participate in this. And very happy to tell her story and her life to the world.”

Watch Kotevska and Stefanov’s IDA Q&A below.

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.

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