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Why ‘Honeyland’ Is Oscar Season’s Cinematic Nonfiction Masterpiece

Light, cinema, conflict: The deceptively simple brilliance of "Honeyland."

Honeyland

“Honeyland”

Neon

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Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov didn’t set out to make a feature. “Honeyland” began as a short video commission from Macedonia’s Nature Conservation Project, which wanted to explore issues of biodiversity and sustainability. But when they met Hatidze — a beekeeper who returned half of her honey to the bees who made it, and lived in an abandoned village caring for her ailing, blind mother –— they found a dynamic character who embodied their objective.

“There was a research period, during this time we observed and followed her,” said Kotevska. “After this first research, we [created] a list, I would say kind of a treatment with all the activities she does just to have in mind how to create this, how to make it chronological, and just how to make sense of all her activities.”

“Honeyland” co-cinematographers Fejmi Daut shooting Hatidze beekeeping routine

Courtesy of Filmmakers

The co-directors and their cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma didn’t just study her routine; they also studied its context in terms of time of day, light, and camera position. Shooting at Hatidze’s remote village required the four filmmakers to shoot in two-to-three day windows — time that also required hours of travel over rough roads and living out of tents. Together, they found how to cover Hatidze’s routine with two, two-person filmmaking teams.

“So, for example, the scenes that are inside, the interior scenes with the mother, there are so many tries there,” said Kotevska. “So many scenes we didn’t get until we eventually [figured out] how to set everything inside. How to set the camera. What’s the best positions, because the place is very small. And just to observe the light, which changes with the seasons, how it changes, because there’s just one window, just one square window. And this creates the most amazing atmosphere inside.”

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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. 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"

“Honeyland”

Neon

“We were only using color DSLRs, natural light, no additional photographic lenses, no filters, no nothing,” said Stefanov. “It took time and study as we tried to show the inner condition of her existing.”

Equally important was the intimate off-camera relationship they built with Hatidize herself, becoming a human connection in the woman’s near-solitary existence. Like the filmmakers, Hatidize speaks fluent Macedonian, but with her mother and others, she spoke Ottoman Turkish, an ancient dialect that even Turkish speakers can’t fully understand. The filmmakers eventually realized they would have to allow their subject to speak on camera in a language they did not understand.

“We discovered it was an advantage to the film because it revealed to us the very basic level of communication, which is the nonverbal communication,” said Kotevska. “Just observing them as directors, not understanding the language, it was great because we saw what things are working without translation.”

Shooting "Honeyland"

Co-cinematographer Samir Ljuma shooting “Honeyland”

Courtesy of Filmmakers

“Honeyland” was initially edited without translated dialogue, or as Stefanov described it, “editing on mute.” With most of its funding coming from the nonprofit, transcription of 400 hours of footage was a budget item they could not afford. The “Honeyland” team searched for moments where action, movement, and reaction expressed character and emotion. They made the film work non-verbally before paying to transcribe a select portion of their footage.

The transcribed dialogue did change the cut, but both directors were surprised at how well their non-translated version worked. The biggest surprise was the conversation with the mother: Her dialogue is incredibly poetic, and demanded significant restructuring of the narrative.

“The mother was a completely different character [when transcribed],” said Stefanov. “We saw her as a very sad character with everything going on, but after we got all the translation and discovering the things she’s saying and how her brain works, it was like a completely new character in the story because she turned out to be very wise, very sharp minded. Also, I would say even humorous. She was not feeling sorry for herself; on the contrary, she was a fighter who knew that her time had come.”

"Honeyland"

“Honeyland”

NEON

What eventually allowed the short to blossom into a feature was the unexpected conflict that arose when a nomadic family moved into the abandoned village and disturbed the harmony of Hatidize’s way of life and bee-keeping. It’s a conflict that spoke to the larger intellectual and scientific objectives of the initial project, but like with the scenes with the mother, the disturbance benefitted from being expressed visually and before transcription.

“With the family at the beginning, we started observing them from a distance,” said Stefanov. Over time and through multiple visits, the new subjects became comfortable with the four filmmakers. As the comfort level grew, the four filmmakers started to film them up close with handheld cameras, placing themselves right in the middle of the chaos wrought by a struggling family with seven kids and a pack of animals.

“There is a difference between the camera that was used for Hatidze and the camera that was used for the family,” said Kotevska. “The camera used for Hatidze brings a lot more peace. It mostly consisted of static shots. It’s trying to show the inner condition of her existing. And meanwhile with the family, it went a little crazier because it’s impossible to shoot with them the same way.”

That contrast in cinematic styles allows the audience to feel the disturbance Hatidze felt, the conflict embodied in the camera and edit. At its core, “Honeyland” works because the filmmakers used their greatest resources, time and the camera, to tap into the preverbal strengths of the medium itself.

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