This award-winning Macedonian documentary shows us just how fragile our link with nature is

To kick off our series of articles on sustainability in the New East, we speak to the directors of the acclaimed Macedonian documentary Honeyland — a cautionary tale about one of Europe’s last bee hunters, and how the delicate balance between humanity and nature can easily unravel.

22 April 2019

At first, it isn’t easy to connect with Macedonian directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov. They’re on the verge of a one-month tour with their feature debut Honeyland, following success at Sundance (where the documentary bagged the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, plus Special Jury nods for Impact for Change and Cinematography) and a hometown premiere in Skopje, and have barely had time to catch their breath. Not that they’re complaining. When we speak, they’re facing upcoming screenings at showcase events like New Directors/New Films at New York’s Lincoln Center, Frames of Rep at the ICA in London, and festivals from Hong Kong to Switzerland. Their years spent shooting in the remote Balkan countryside are paying off.

This promotional chaos is part and parcel of the film industry, and amplifies all the more Honeyland’s beautifully articulated tensions. The film takes us outside the transactional bustle of globalised urban realities into a universe where daily life is lived in calm harmony with the rhythms of nature. It also portrays a fragile ecological order whose days seem numbered, haunted by the spectre of aggressive profiteering.

“Half for me, half for you.” This line, sung by central protagonist Hatidze Muratova to the bees whose honey she harvests to sell in the market in Skopje, encapsulates her philosophy of careful sustainability. The bee hunter lives in a cottage without electricity or running water, in an abandoned village, with her blind, elderly mother. Adept at climbing the craggy terrain to collect honey, she always leaves enough for the swarm to subsist on. She reaches into their midst calmly and without gloves, the glorious yellow of her shirt echoing the hue of their comb in a way that suggests a sympathy with the natural world; “hunting” not as a display of dominance but rather harmony with the wild creatures of the food chain.

In our world of climate crisis, the broader implications the film raises — of a natural order thrown out of alignment by entrepreneurial greed — resonate profoundly

“It’s so important, this principle of the equal sharing of benefits,” says Stefanov when we finally catch up over Skype. “It means equal sharing between the user and nature — in this case, between humans and bees, but it can also be oceans, or forests, and so on. In the end, it ensures food security. The principle of taking half and leaving half to the bees is very simple, but it’s a unique, universal example of how humans should use natural resources. Especially in recent times, the over-exploitation of natural resources is the main reason for what we now face: the collapse of the environment, and society.”

The threat of over-exploitation hangs over the film. Hatidze’s world at first seems like an idyll, her contented routines and accompanying songs a return to traditional simplicity, and the film’s frames radiant with the amber gleam of honey and soft sunlight. But a large and fractious family, with seven children and a herd of cows, soon arrive to break the calm. Hatidze greets them with her best brandy, but when they hear a jar of honey brings in lucrative profits, they determine to get in on the business. The repercussions are swift. With no long-term awareness or respect for Hatidze’s “take half, leave half” policy, the family’s bees are deprived of necessary sustenance, wreaking havoc on the delicate ecological balance.

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Kotevska’s and Stefanov’s concern for sustainability informed their entire filmmaking process, from Honeyland’s conception through to its circulation. Their project began in 2016 as a smaller exploration of nature around Macedonia’s Bregalnica River, as part of the Swiss-funded Nature Conservation Programme, an initiative designed to assist the country in preserving its biodiversity and ecosystems; when they met Hatidze, their focus shifted. The small team avoided bringing in bulky equipment (“it was shot only on DSLRs,” they tell me, with the cottage’s candles the only source of evening lighting). Their presence in the film does not feel invasive — there is no didactic voice-over — favouring instead a quiet observational approach to the village’s rhythms.

Far from experiencing the camera as an intrusion, Hatidze has the kind of personality that thrives in the limelight. “She was like a film star,” Kotevska smiles. “She said this was her biggest wish, that some journalist would shoot her while climbing in the hills. She’s amazing: a complete extrovert and full of energy, very intelligent, loves to talk to people and sing. It was amazing for us to work with her because she’s so open. If she wasn’t, this story probably wouldn’t have been possible. It came naturally from her, she wanted to tell her story to the world.”

The directors have strived to have a positive impact on the location since shooting, too. They have returned material benefits from the production back to the protagonists, using a share of development funding they won at the Sarajevo Film Festival to help the two families. “The nomadic family have a house in the nearest village, and we supplied them continuously with clothes for the children, gave them a vehicle to get to school, and other support. For Hatidze, we bought a new little house — maybe that sounds extravagant but it only cost something like €10,000 — and some necessary things, like a refrigerator and oven,” explains Stefanov. “After Sundance, we decided to start a campaign around the sale of honey from the region, which we are now negotiating, the money from which will go to education for the children, and paying for electricity: [a move] towards sustainability for both families in the way they live.”

In our world of climate crisis, the broader implications the film raises — of a natural order thrown out of alignment by entrepreneurial greed — resonate profoundly. The sight of the imperiled pollinators in Honeyland triggers environmental anxiety, whether it’s about potential species extinction or the associated threat to agriculture. Kotevska and Stefanov say they do not consider themselves activists (“not in the sense of direct engagement in protests and so on”), but feel a strong responsibility towards cinema and how they utilise it: “It’s our medium, and we can do the most for any particular issue through it. Of the awards we received in Sundance, the Impact for Change one was the most important to us.”

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