Is it ethical for documentary filmmakers and producers to get involved in the lives of their subjects? It’s an age-old question that’s getting new life following a recent report from The New York Times that details the various ways in which the team behind the acclaimed 2019 documentary “Honeyland” has gotten involved in the life of their film’s subject. Atanas Georgiev, the film’s producer, told The Times his team “decided to break [the] rule” of not engaging with their subject after the documentary’s success meant they could change the her impoverished lifestyle for the better.
“Honeyland,” directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, is set in Macedonia and follows the life of the region’s last nomadic beekeeper Hatidže Muratova, Much of the film tracks the tension that develops between Muratova and Hussein Sam, a more industrial beekeeper whose methods for collecting honey stand in opposition to Muratova’s beliefs and threaten her livelihood living in the poor village of Bekirlija.
“Honeyland” world premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won three prizes (including the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary), and it entered the Oscars history book earlier this year with nominations for both Best Documentary and Best International Feature Film. Neon distributed the film in the U.S., and it earned over $1 million worldwide.
As the movie became a success, Georgiev and the filmmakers continually made visits to Macedonia to check up on and stay involved in the lives of Muratova and Hussein Sam. As The Times reports: “Using prize money won by the film, [Stefanov] and his colleagues had found [Muratova] a new house in Dorfulija, a larger and wealthier village about half an hour’s drive away. She now divides her time between the two villages.”
Tensions between Muratova and Sam started before the filming of “Honeyland” and have reportedly escalated afterwards, mainly due to a conflict over a communal well in Bekirlija that Sam wants to use to keep his cows hydrated. Muratova argues the well is only for human use. A legal battle also took place between the parties before filming after Muratova attacked Sam’s dogs.
The Times reports the “Honeyland” team “tried to stay neutral” during the filming of the documentary by “providing legal assistance to both parties.” The crew also “mediated an agreement by which Ms. Muratova would withdraw her complaint in exchange for Mr. Sam’s promise to abide by a set of principles about his future behavior.”
Georgiev also “created a foundation that works with the families independently of the crew” so that his team could try as best as possible not be involved in the subjects’ lives. Through this foundation, “a volunteer social worker helps both families overcome a never-ending list of logistical and social challenges, including setting up bank accounts and enrolling them in social security.”
The “Honeyland” team visited Muratova as recently as July and continued to impact her daily life. Georgiev helped her find a workman to create a spare key for her home and contacted the mayor of her region to reconnect the water after her water taps ran dry. The producer told The Times his actions are “a self-interested act — a means of both salving the crew’s conscience for deriving professional benefit from the lives of both Mr. Sam and Ms. Muratova, and warding off public criticism.”
“Usually you don’t interfere with your protagonists,” Georgiev said, “but as soon as we realized ‘Honeyland’ would be very successful, we thought we had to do something.”
Head over to The New York Times’ website to read more about the “Honeyland” team’s efforts.