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“It’s a Choice: To Be a Filmmaker or a Human”: Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska on Honeyland

Hatidze Muratova in Honeyland (courtesy of NEON)

The award-winning documentary Honeyland marks the second collaboration between directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska. Set in Bekirlijia, a rural village in Macedonia, it focuses on Hatidze Muratova, who follows ancient beekeeping traditions while caring for her ailing mother Nazife. Despite her efforts to be self-sufficient, political and economic decisions have a profound effect on Hatidze and her ability to survive.

Synopses of Honeyland can make it seem like a dull, self-righteous nature documentary. Instead, it’s a film filled with contradictions and narrative reversals. Characters make self-destructive, at times inexplicable choices, often under the guise of kindness and generosity. Hatidze Muratova, ostensibly a woman living on the edge of society, possesses a strong set of survivor skills and a wily grasp of cultural change.

Filmmaker spoke with Stefanov and Kotevska during a press tour in August.

Filmmaker: First off, can you describe how you work together?

Tamara Kotevska: You go straight to the point. I have the same question myself. Maybe we can tell both sides of the story. We have worked together on two films so far. This is our second. The first film [Lake of Apples, 2017] was also an environmental documentary, but very different from this one. That first film brought the team together—directors, cinematographers and the editor. Coming from completely different backgrounds and ages turned out to be an advantage, because we could contribute to different aspects of the story. We did a lot of experimenting to find the right format and came up with what in our opinion is a different, new kind of style. Having two directors was helpful, because we could split into teams. One director and one DP worked with one family, the other with the other. That way we could cover everything.

Filmmaker: Since this started as a commissioned project, how did you decide the best way to approach the story?

Stefanov: While we were in the first film, we started this one with the same group. We began Honeyland in the framework of a nature conservation project. We were tasked to produce a short documentary about the area, built around an environmental topic. We spotted Hatidze in the very beginning and just started shooting her. That scene where she’s taking the honey, she’s saying, “Half for me and half for you.” That was filmed in the first week of the shoot.

Kotevska: It was also more than six months of research, just spending time with Hatidze. 

Stefanov: Learning her activities, her schedule, from the very beginning of filming, because she was so interesting in her relation with the mother. 

Kotevska: Research is key to making a documentary. The more you research, the more you understand how to read the story, what you can and can’t get out of your protagonists. After the first months, we knew we had a story.We decided to follow one storyline, the one about the bees [and] not focus on anything else, because there were many other conflicts and events happening.

Filmmaker: How did you decide on this location—this village, these mountains? In the opening scenes you’re shooting on the edge of a cliff overlooking an isolated valley. That’s not something you just stumble upon.

Stefanov: It’s actually very close to the village. 

Kotevska: It’s all walking distance. 

Stefanov: Our country is very small, maybe 200 kilometers. This area’s in the very center of the country. It used to be Turkish, but it was abandoned in the 1950s when there was an agreement between Turkey and Yugoslavia exchanging the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Around ten villages there were abandoned. Some families, like Hatidze’s, decided to stay. There’s nothing there, nothing anyone can use. nobody was interested bringing electricity there, building roads, providing running water. So, there’s almost no one there except seasonal shepherds. It’s a hard life, like living in the seventeenth century.

Filmmaker: That shot of Hatidze on the ridge shows the hardships she faces but also the incredible natural beauty of the area. It also shows your commitment to the documentary process.

Stefanov: Would you believe that we shot that the first day? No, the second day. 

Kotevska: We came a couple of times before to meet her, to make contact with her. This is one of the first activities she showed us. 

Stefanov: The first day in the field—it’s outside the village but very close. We have a production picture. It’s maybe 200 meters up. 

Kotevska: We are all climbers. This picture shows how we shot it. You see all four of us together on the cliff. 

Filmmaker: You said you researched Hatidze for six months. How long was the actual shoot?

Stefanov: One hundred filming days, spread out over three years. 

Kotevska: We could only go there for three or four days maximum at a time. We had a small all-terrain vehicle, because there are no roads there. That meant only four people at a time, so no sound recordists either. We brought all the supplies for the next three days: tents, hammocks, food. 

Filmmaker: You worked with two DPs [Fejmi Daut, Samir Ljuma] the entire shoot?

Kotevska: It changed. Sometimes two people on the crew, sometimes four. 

Filmmaker: How do you collaborate about framing, which person to follow?

Stefanov: Those first months with Hatidze, we became very familiar with the lighting, what angles to use. Sometimes we would do the camera ourselves.

Filmmaker: So viewing your footage, you could determine what material to get during the next visit?

Kotevska: You can say that. Not always. Every time we went back we would decide that this time, for example, we will spend three days focused on the mother and daughter relationship, and see how much we can get from their conversations. Next time we know that it’s time for the bee activity of some kind. 

Stefanov: Or the cows. 

Kotevska: Then, the whole weekend, the whole time we were there we spent just focused on this activity. 

Stefanov: The editing process was interesting, because we don’t understand the Turkish dialect they were speaking.

Filmmaker: How do you decide what to shoot when you don’t know what people are saying?

Kotevska: Something that people usually forget, because we’re so used to verbal communication, is that our primary instinct is visual. We communicate through body language. So much of what we can see of each other is done without talking. This was crucial for us.

Stefanov: For example there are some things we used—the fan Hatidze buys, or when she’s fussing with her hair. These are everyday moments, but deep down you make a connection. We started editing and got close to a rough cut of, say, the scenes with Hatidze and her mother. We didn’t know what they were saying, but we could build a scene from their dialogue. During the same period translators were working on a transcript, and it was exciting to see that scenes worked once we realized what they were actually saying. Like in the winter the mother asks, “Will there be spring?” 

Kotevska: Or, “I’ve become a tree.” Which in Macedonia is considered a funny expression, people usually laugh when they say it.

Filmmaker: You make artistic choices during editing, but also in what you choose to shoot. The way you frame the village and valley after a death, for example.

Stefanov: That scene was filmed last year, after Hatidze phoned us. 

Filmmaker: Which raises another question: how much do you participate in the lives of the people you are filming?

Kotevska: Are you asking what kind of person Hatidze is? How did she respond to us? Maybe this will help you understand. A Korean journalist living in London saw the film there and immediately booked a flight to Macedonia to talk with Hatidze. We took him to see her. He asked, “How did they find you?” And she said, “They didn’t find me. I found them.” So, you can imagine the mindset she had going into this film. She’s a complete extrovert. She wanted her story to be told. It’s a lot easier when you work with this kind of person who wants to tell her story. Otherwise I don’t think we could approach her so closely.

This was very different with the other family, the “seasonals.” When they first came, we didn’t find them, I don’t know, important. They were just some people around, the kids hiding in the bushes, covering their faces. But Hatidze eventually discovers she has a conflict with them—not only about the bees, but other conflicts as well. We realized we must make this a part of the story. They come and go every season.

Filmmaker: The conflict gets worse each time.

Kotevska: Worse or better. Every time is a risk. 

Stefanov: It doesn’t get any worse. It was… 

Kotevska: Changeable. 

Filmmaker: If this were fiction, they would be the villains.

Kotevska: You cannot judge them. We didn’t judge them as authors or as people. The point we wanted to make with this film is that you cannot judge people who are pushed into this kind of situation. They’re not the villains. The system is the villain, a villain that pushes us into being consumeristically oriented. 

Stefanov: Or to get trapped in a spiral of grievance. 

Filmmaker: So I am the villain.

Kotevska: All of us are. These people should be the mirror to all of us. Hussein’s not to blame because he has seven children to take care of. Anyone in his place would make the same decisions to feed his family. 

Filmmaker: Did you ever feel you should interfere, prevent something from happening that would hurt Hatidze? 

Stefanov: No. 

Kotevska: This is a personal decision that every filmmaker makes when he or she starts doing a film. As long as documentaries have existed, it’s a choice: to be a filmmaker or a human. In our case we always felt like guests in their lifestyle. When you enter somebody’s home, you don’t tell them how to behave, you don’t shout at them. We are just observers. Even if we interfere, it will not change things. Because next time, when we’re not there, they will do the same thing 

Stefanov: We brought medicine for Hatidze’s mother Nazife. We tried to help more, but she refused. 

Kotevska: The mother didn’t want to leave the house. She was waiting to die. Not only this, but Hatidze told us openly what she wants, how we can help her. When her mother died, she wanted to move to another village closer to her brother and relatives. So with the first award money we got from the Sarajevo festival, we bought her a house in this village. Now she can go back and forth, still take care of her bees but have a safe place in the winter. 

Stefanov: It was her choice. 

Filmmaker: How much did Hatidze participate in how she was portrayed onscreen?

Kotevska: I don’t think she was aware of what the camera saw, she just naturally behaves that way. If you work with anyone in modern society, we have developed this habit of changing our behavior because we’re aware of the camera. But Hatidze and people like her don’t have this perception of how they should behave in front of other people. They are just who they are.

Stefanov: They are aware of what is important to them. Hussein was worried that his truck would look too old, he was worried about his trailer looking dusty. So, our presence of course changes their behavior. We don’t know how, we can only hope. 

Kotevska: I can say that when we were there, at least they were talking to each other. 

Stefanov: We saw other abandoned villages in Macedonia. When there are two people in the village, they’re fighting. They’re always clashing. 

Kotevska: Everybody. 

Stefanov: Like marriage. 

Filmmaker: The movie’s metaphor of the hive, the queen bee—when did that become apparent?

Kotevska: Right from the beginning. 

Stefanov: The notes mention that we had four hundred hours of footage. But it’s not about the quantity of material, the hours. We filmed a lot of events and have scenes that are probably more exciting than what’s in the final cut. We choose these because they fit, they belong. 

Kotevska: Our biggest challenge was to create a documentary that had the internal structure of fiction. Because this is really the future of cinema: Fiction that looks like documentaries and documentaries that look like fiction. 

Stefanov: But not cheating. What you see is what happened. 

Kotevska: Of course. Real materials to create a normal, familiar fiction structure. That was the real pleasure of working on this film. 

Filmmaker: What’s next for you?

Kotevska: We are working on separate films. I’m in pre-production on my debut fiction film. It’s based on a real event, so I plan to use a documentary approach to it. 

Stefanov: I’m continuing documentaries. I have two ideas I’ve started on. One is about an island of gay turtles. 

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