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Macedonian-documentary Honeyland created a buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, nabbing the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize, the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Impact for Change and the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography.

Set in a remote mountain village in central Macedonia, Honeyland follows the story of Hatige Muratove, one of Europe’s last female bee hunters, whose world is threatened when a profit-oriented family of nomadic beekeepers move into her land and endanger the delicate ecosystem of bees.

The documentary is the result of three years of hard work and persistence from directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, as well as cinematographers Samir Ljuma and Fejmi Daut.

Though their original idea was to make a short film about the conservation of Bregalnica river in central Macedonia, but their idea moved in a completely different direction when they met Hatige.

“Hatige lives in a man’s world, she is the only woman bee hunter, but also the only one that is dedicated to the rule of giving the bees their half of the honey. While other see the bees as an ordinary resource, she sees them as her children”, explains Kotevska.

For the director Stefanov, this is not a documentary about bees or a bee hunter, but rather about the way Hatige is using the honey, her fair-share with the nature.

“In general, the way of how the natural resources are used in Macedonian rural areas is often not ecological. But this is a rare example, perhaps the only I’ve met, where someone respects some sort of sustainability rule. It looks pretty exotic, but that’s because is happening in a forgotten place and with forgotten people”, notes Stefanov.

With no electricity and barely enough necessities, the team struggled to live and record in the village. In the end, they came to the village twice a week and had to sleep in tents together with the film’s subjects, becoming part of the family.

During the shooting of the scenes, they didn’t even use equipment to protect themselves from the bees, because Hatige’s attitude towards her bees gave them confidence. In the case of certain scenes, they had waited two years for the perfect shot.

When asked about the future of the environment, Stefanov was not optimistic.

“We are a developing country and our environment, during our lives, will not be spared from the ruthless and excessive exploitation of natural resources. Even with these [EU] integrations, which are ahead of us as a country, I do not believe that we will be spared from the self-destruction of the environment”, says Stefanov.

Beside Sundance, the team had the opportunity to show their documentary in Salt Lake City, Utah, where they organized a dégustation, or sampling, of Hatige’s honey. There, they got their first real audience and reactions.

The Macedonian premiere will happen in August at the International creative documentary film festival “Makedox”.

“I remember one screening where we had children as audience. It was a big room full with children on age between 13 and 18. During the screening they were all so quiet and focused on the movie. Later we had a Q&A that lasted about 40 minutes. We finished our presentation with a question for them – did they recognize an environmental message in the movie. The all said “yes” and started telling us what they understood, which took 20 minutes longer. That really fascinated me and I hope that will happen with our audience in Macedonia too,” hopes Stefanov.

Recently, they launched an online campaign calling on audiences to contribute by buying a jar of Honeyland’s own natural honey. Though Hatige is now in a better home in the nearest village, the filmmakers also want to help the children of the other family that appears in the documentary, who need to go to school.

For Kotevska, the main message is not about environmental or nature issues, but about the people she met during filming. She is thrilled with how the characters in the documentary are happy about their way of life.

“Often it seems that if they come from a third-class society, the first instinct is that you are feeling sorry for them, you think they are being cursed and left there, but I am sure that these were the happiest children I’ve ever met. They enjoyed their freedom, and were pretty well fed, and if you put them in other conditions, like in a city, you will imprison them,” said Kotevska.

“The main message I have learned from these people is that each one’s life is equally worth it, equally happy, and it carries its own size, and you cannot take your personal example as a measure of what happiness and good life means.”

Emilija Petreska

About Emilija Petreska

Emilija Petreska is a journalist based in Skopje, Republic of Macedonia. She has a degree in journalism and public relations and is currently working for Radio MOF (www.radiomof.mk), an internet multimedia platform. Radio MOF produces audio, video, and web content focused on topics including youth, environment, and marginalized groups.