March 2020

Arts & Letters

They came, they saw: Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s ‘Honeyland’

By Shane Danielsen


A breathtaking North Macedonian film about Europe’s last female keeper of wild bees exists compellingly at the intersection of documentary and fiction

At January’s Sundance Film Festival, a minor controversy erupted over a film that most critics agreed was one of the best in this year’s line-up. Programmed as part of the festival’s US Documentary Competition, Bill and Turner Ross’s Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets purported to be a fly-on-the-wall portrait of regular denizens of a Las Vegas dive bar, “The Roaring 20s”, over the course of its final day and night of operation.

All well and good. Except that, as its makers freely conceded after its first screening, their movie wasn’t shot in Vegas at all: it was actually filmed in New Orleans, where the Ross brothers live and where the real Roaring 20’s bar is located. Nor were the barflies depicted simply patrons who happened to wander in. They were in fact men and women the directors had cast after weeks of scouting in other bars – people who, as Bill Ross tactfully put it, “had relationships with alcohol”. One or two were even amateur actors. One day after Trump’s election, back in November 2016, they were assembled by the filmmakers and given just two pieces of direction: first, to pretend the bar they were in was in downtown Las Vegas, and second, that it was closing for good later that night.

But their subsequent interactions and the stories they told weren’t scripted. And both the drinking, and the drunkenness that resulted, were wholly unsimulated. The plan, Turner Ross claimed, was to construct an environment that might then produce “the authentic found moments” the brothers were looking for. Some viewers, inevitably, felt cheated by this admission. Others were confused. Was the film documentary or fiction? Direct Cinema in the tradition of the Maysles brothers, or a slice of boozy American naturalism à la John Cassavetes? Or was it perhaps something else again, inspired by both but indebted to neither?

I haven’t yet seen Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, although once I read about the controversy, my interest in it increased rather than diminished. Part of this, admittedly, is down to the quarrelsome relationship I have with a lot of documentaries. Many present urgent truths, only to fail as cinema: they’re banal or didactic, or not well-visualised. Others seem well-intentioned but shallow. And some just tick a box – the ever-expanding canon of Alex Gibney, for example. Each year, briskly, perfunctorily tackling l’outrage du jour with all the insight of a Let’s Go guidebook.

But even when a documentary is successful, I often find myself outside of the film, pondering the questions any supposedly unmediated representation of reality inevitably throws up. Did they prep that location, or those bystanders? How did they capture that audio? Did this happen only once – are we, at any given moment, witnessing an “actual incident” – or was it re-enacted for the camera, and if so, what modifications were made? These are practical matters that hint at broader ethical concerns, about a filmmaker’s relationship with their subject, their duty to the viewer, and their fidelity or otherwise to what’s commonly known as truth.

I thought about this while watching Honeyland, the Oscar-nominated documentary from Macedonian filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, but that’s not to say it’s a failure. Quite the contrary: shot over three years, and assembled from more than 400 hours of raw footage, it’s not only an extraordinary piece of cinema in its own right, a kind of pastoral epic, but one that seems to exist at a curious yet compelling intersection of reportage and fiction.

It tells the story of Hatidže Muratova, a North Macedonian woman of Turkish descent. Now in her mid-fifties, she lives in Bekirlija, an abandoned village lacking electricity or fresh water, with her 85-year-old mother, Nazife – an invalid with a nasty facial wound, a foggy sense of the present, and no apparent inclination to leave the bed she’s occupied for the past four years. Hatidže feeds her, bickers with her, tells her stories. But for a few sleepy cats, the two women are utterly alone. 

Hatidže also tends to bees – she is, in fact, the last female keeper of wild bees in Europe – and maintains a number of hives in various hidden places throughout the landscape, in hollowed-out trees or behind crumbling stone walls. Our first glimpse of Hatidže finds her making her way expertly along the side of a mountain, perilously close to the edge, as she goes to check on yet another of her secret stores.

When it comes to gathering the honey, she operates according to a strict rule: “Half for them, half for me.” She takes enough, in other words, to support herself, but not so much as to destroy the colonies. Every few weeks she travels to the capital, Skopje, to sell that month’s yield and buy supplies, on a journey that seems to transport her from the medieval world into the present day. Then it’s back to the countryside. The cold cottage, the teeming insects. It’s a lonely, hardscrabble existence, made no easier by the precarious nature of the local economy.

And then one day her routine is disturbed by the arrival of a family, Turkish like herself, who claim a neighbouring parcel of land. They’re tinkers, and Hatidže, clearly grateful for some company, at first welcomes and befriends them. The patriarch, Hussein Sam, watches her go about her work. As he asks her about the money she makes selling her honey, we almost see a little light bulb appear over his head. Before long, he’s bought some frames of his own.

Alas, Hussein is not a natural apiarist. He’s both impatient and uncertain – a less-than-ideal combination – and as a result is frequently stung. His ineptitude is bettered only by the lack of interest from his seven young children, whom he attempts to draft into assisting him. One son in particular has nothing but contempt for his father and this latest, half-arsed plan – yet intriguingly, we watch the same boy strike up a close relationship with Hatidže, whose knowledge and skill he clearly respects.

Incompetent and opportunistic Hussein might be, but he’s not a villain – he has, after all, a family to support. That role falls instead to a local merchant, a burly spiv straight out of an Emir Kusturica movie, who sees an opportunity (and a willing mark – he ignores the wiser Hatidže) and drafts purchase terms that Hussein then struggles to meet. In desperation, the newcomer disregards Hatidže’s advice to leave half the bees’ yield, with dire consequences for her own hives.

Kotevska and Stefanov are adamant that there are no fictional devices in their movie – that the story unfolded, more or less, as we see it. I have no reason to doubt them. It’s enough to know (as the film’s “making of” notes reveal) that their original plan – to make a state-sponsored short-form documentary about the shifting course of the Bregalnica River – changed once they apprehended the more compelling narrative, and character, they chanced upon. They were fortunate, certainly. But they also fulfilled the remit of any good documentarian: they saw.

And Hatidže is nothing if not a character. Looking a little like one of van Gogh’s potato eaters, she’s high-spirited and resilient, fond of pop songs and dancing and bad jokes, and prone to occasional, touching flashes of vanity. (“Everybody likes to look nice,” she tells her mother, as she dyes her hair over a bucket. “Even me.”) Her daily life echoes her vocation: she’s the worker bee, we come to realise, and Nazife the immobile queen.

But while the directors refuse to intercede – there’s a great moment when one of Hussein’s kids is kicked by a cow he’s trying to milk; the camera doesn’t flinch – the editing, by Atanas Georgiev, is a different matter. There’s a scene towards the end (I won’t spoil it) whose not-inconsiderable power depends entirely upon some adroit cutting; the incident occurred, sure, but the story has undeniably been shaped. Likewise, a moment when Hatidže confesses to Hussein’s son that, if she’d only had a child, her life might be very different. The two of them are sitting in a cave. She can’t be unaware of the camera at that moment – she must be “performing”, at least to some degree. And while that knowledge doesn’t diminish the sorrowful power of her admission, it does complicate it a little.

Ostensibly about ecological catastrophe, Honeyland seemed to me even more persuasive as a parable of capitalism and the devastation that free markets casually, thoughtlessly inflict on the weakest and most vulnerable workers, and the artisanal traditions that sustain them. Volume is everything; expansion is a given. And if commercial growth should destroy the source of that income… well, what of it? Watching, I was reminded of something Bertrand Russell once noted, about how the staunchest advocates for capitalism always harp on about liberty, yet ultimately that belief boils down to a single proposition: “The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate.”

As Trump and his gangsters overturn anything remotely resembling an environmental regulation, and our prime minister ignores not only a decade’s worth of data, but the mounting evidence of his own senses, this would seem a lesson worth heeding. Yet Honeyland also satisfies on a purely surface level, thanks in no small part to the work of cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma. The interior shots of Hatidže’s cottage, steeped in shadows, bear a clear debt to the kindred documentary-fictions of Portugal’s Pedro Costa, while the rugged exteriors are rendered with breathtaking clarity, a harsh beauty that’s never merely lyrical. But no image here is more memorable than that of Hatidže herself – isolated in the vast landscape, vivid in her mustard-coloured shirt and emerald headscarf. Indomitable, unbowed.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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