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Honeyland: life lessons from Europe’s last wild beekeeper

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  • By Tamara Kovacevic
  • BBC News

One of the most unlikely films in competition at this weekend’s Oscars is the fascinating story of a wild beekeeper in the Balkans. Honeyland has a strong environmental message, but it is the life story of the woman at the center of the film that has struck a chord around the world.

Honeyland is the first film to compete for both Best Documentary and best international feature film. The success of the documentary is all the more remarkable because it started almost by chance.

Macedonian filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov were researching a remote mountainous region of the country for a short nature documentary. They noticed beehives behind a rock on the mountain where they were filming. This led them to Hatidze Muratova, one of the last wild beekeepers in Europe., which uses ancient methods passed down from generation to generation to harvest wild honey.


Haditze Muratova at home

It was the start of a three-year “crazy adventure”, filming between scorching summers and freezing winters. After another year of editing, their first feature film was born.

Honeyland chronicles a period in Hatidze’s life when her old methods of beekeeping clashed and conflicted with those of a newcomer to her isolated home region.

The directors say the film profoundly changed their lives. Honeyland has a lot to say about nature conservation, but its lessons also relate to human life and relationships.

Share to survive

“Half for me, half for you” is Hatidze’s mantra, which she repeats while tending to the bees on the mountain. But it’s a message that risks being lost in the modern world.

Hatidze lives in Bekirlija, an abandoned village without electricity, running water and roads, where she cares for her sick mother.

The honey she sells at the market in North Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, is her only source of income. She only takes half of the honey, leaving the rest for the bees.

She lives by this simple principle. “Sharing with bees and with nature is the key to its survival,” explains Stefanov.


Hatidze approaches a beehive on a cliff

But his quiet existence is fundamentally changed when the nomadic Sam family, parents of seven unruly children, a noisy vehicle and a large herd of cattle, move into the village.

When the Sam family arrives, they welcome them with open hearts and teach them how to harvest wild honey.

However, Hussein, the father of the family, wants to harvest honey on a larger scale and for more profit. He takes all the honey from his own hives, but his bees respond by attacking Hatidze’s hives, leading to their destruction and conflict between the human neighbors.

Kotevska says the filmmakers don’t want to present the Sam family as a symbol of destruction, but simply as “a mirror of all of us who make bad decisions”, based on the need to survive and provide for ourselves.

Wisdom can be more powerful than strength

“To be able to communicate with bees, you need to have personal strength to approach them, patience to learn how to tame them, and this way of life does not require strength but wisdom,” says Kotevska.

She says beekeeping has made Hatidze such a remarkable person.

Hatidze gets very close to the bees, often without any protection. She doesn’t get stung, the bees seem to trust her.


Hatidze collecting honey

“Everything we have heard from Hatidze refers to bees. She has worked with bees all her life and everything she learned, she learned from them.”

Directors say wild beekeeping was an activity that only a few people in the area learned to practice. It was never the main source of income for the villagers, but families passed it down from generation to generation.

In Hatidze’s family, learning this skill skipped a generation: she learned it as a girl from her grandfather rather than her parents.

You can be alone but not alone

“Hatidze acts with the bees as if they were her family and she takes care of them as if they were her children,” says Kotevska. “And thanks to this, even though her life is very hard, Hatidze does not feel alone.”

In one scene in the film, Hatidze asks her mother why she refused marriage offers made to her. Nazife says she didn’t refuse them, but Hatidze’s late father did.

Stefanov says that in traditional communities in this part of the world, regardless of religion or ethnicity, “there is an unwritten rule that the last born daughter stays with her parents until they die.” .

“So Hatidze’s destiny was to stay and take care of his parents.”

But Hatidze really wanted to find his own family. In the film, she develops a special bond with one of the boys Sam.


Hatidze shares honey with one of the boys Sam

“The love she kept for her own family, which was never realized, ultimately went to the bees,” says Kotevska.

“She finds happiness and companionship in every living creature around her. She will continue to find happiness again and again for as long as she lives.”

Pictures can speak louder than words

Honeyland is a film set in an isolated country, where people live in a way that is unfamiliar in the West. But it has always reached a global audience through the body language, relationships and emotions of the protagonists.

Both Sams and Hatidze’s families are of Turkish origin and speak the Turkish dialect throughout the film.

In the past, there were about 10 Turkish villages in the area, Stefanov says, but most of the villagers left for Turkey after World War II.

Today, around 78,000 ethnic Turks still live in North Macedonia, representing just under 4 percent of the country’s population of 2.1 million.

“Not understanding Turkish was a problem during filming, but we decided to let them speak as they naturally would,” says Kotevska.

“When we got to the edit, we spent a week or more completely stuck. We spent hours thinking about what we were going to do with this material. In the end, we came up with the best possible solution: edit mute mode. This gave us the power of the visual story we created.

“This has been the most valuable lesson for us as writers of future films. We are now very trained to see stories created visually.”

Kotevska says there were many other drawbacks early on in filming, but most of them ended up working out well.

“They make you extremely creative, we thought of solutions which turned out to be quite unique.”

Bees and humans are similar

Hatidze says his bees are particularly resilient and can survive very high and very low temperatures, unlike many other species. The film shows that this also applies to the inhabitants of the region.

But the similarities between humans and bees don’t end there.

What attracted the interest of the directors from the beginning was the observation of Hatidze’s life and her relationship with her mother. Kotevska says they were struck by Hatidze’s similarity to a worker bee and how her mother looked like the queen bee. In the film, Nazife never leaves the house, but her wisdom guides her daughter in times of crisis.

Conflict between human neighbors is also reflected in bees.

“The Sam family that arrives later is the other group of bees that attacks the previous group of bees, which was Hatidze and his family. We really enjoyed making that comparison during filming.”


Hatidze and her mother Nazife

It’s well known that male and female bees perform very different roles, but the film shows that everyone is doing the same job.

Hussein, his wife and children share all the roles around the livestock. In one scene, one of the young sons is shown helping a cow give birth, while another boy attempts milking with his father nearby.

Kotevska and Stefanov say that, like beekeeping, all other work in this harsh environment was carried out equally by men and women.

“Everyone has to do the same job to survive. You can see it in our film: in both families, no matter their gender, they all do the same things.”


Hatidze with members of the Sam family, including Hussein (right)

And, as with the jobs in the village of Bekirlija, directing the film was shared between Stefanov and Kotevska, who is one of the few female directors to be nominated for an Oscar this year.

Kotevska says that many people assume that she, as a woman, was the one closest to Hatidze, and Stefanov to the boys from the other family. In fact, it was the opposite.

“It’s important who we are as people, our personality, that was crucial. Gender shouldn’t be a topic of discussion.”

Image source, Getty Images


Honeyland directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov at an Oscars week event

Neons can’t compete with North Macedonia’s stars

Hatidze traveled to Hollywood for the Oscars, and she also attended several other film festivals, in places as far-flung as New York, Switzerland, Sarajevo and Turkey. But Kotevska’s main impression of Los Angeles is: “From the tall buildings I can’t see the stars. »

The film has already enabled Kotevska and Stefanov to buy Hatidze a house in another village, close to her brother’s family. However, she still spends the bee season in her old village.


Mountains of North Macedonia where Hatidze lives

The untouched nature of Hatidze’s home couldn’t be further removed from the glitz and glamor of film festivals.

After Hollywood, she will return there in the spring and observe the stars from her little stone cabin.

All photos from Honeyland (directors: Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov) are copyright NEON unless otherwise noted.

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