Honeyland started with one simple idea - to capture the life of Hatidze Muratova, a traditional beekeeper in the remote mountains of North Macedonia, and her elderly mother, Nazife. However, as often happens in the world of documentaries, Honeyland had its own stunning story to tell.
The catalyst for change was the arrival of an itinerant Turkish family and their herd of cattle. They set up home next door to Hatidze’s cottage and disrupt her peaceful - if challenging - existence. What was once calm and quiet is now chaotic and noisy.
We fear for Hatidze and her ailing mother because, barely 15 minutes into Honeyland, we have already grown to care about them and become deeply invested in their lives. Honeyland possesses a magical quality - helped in no small part by its captivating score - that draws you in and immerses you in their environment and way of life.
Hatidze and Nazife live lives that are completely removed from my own. They live in a village without roads, electricity or running water. They survive by farming honey in small batches and selling it in the closest city - a four hour walk away for Hatidze.
It is fascinating to watch - not least because Honeyland’s cinematography has epic sweep and is utterly breathtaking. However, there is also sadness here. This is a way of life that is dying. Hatidze is the last female wild beekeeper in Europe.
For all that is different in Hatidze and Nazife’s existence, there is also much that feels familiar. Financial concerns, loneliness, humour, love and the powerful bond between a mother and a daughter.
Meanwhile, Hatidze is far from stuck in the past. She has a beautiful, open heart and she welcomes the arrival of her neighbours, enjoying their company and teaching them about beekeeping. She is resilient and kind, warm and nurturing. Honeyland is often surprisingly funny as a result of Hatidze's wit and charm.
Sadly, this is to be a doomed relationship - one that will threaten Hatidze existence. What happens between Hatidze and her neighbours literally had me on the edge of my seat. I was completely gripped by the drama in this story and moved to tears on more than one occasion.
This relationship can also, of course, be seen as a microcosm of the delicate balance between mankind and nature. From Honeyland’s opening scenes we see Hatidze’s gentle and respectful treatment of her bees.
It is incredible to watch her maintain balance - taking half of the honey for herself and leaving half for her bees. This portrait of harmony and sustainability is central to all of our lives regardless of where we live in the world.
At the time of shooting, Honeyland’s crew were often unsure of their documentary's exact focus. After three years of filming over 400 hours of footage (and one year in the editing suite), a theme finally emerged - ecology and the importance of balance in nature.
Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov also felt that balance was crucial in their filmmaking process. They gathered only a skeleton film crew and took care to develop a deep bond of trust in their collaboration with Hatidze.
The shoot was far from easy. In an interview with Variety, the documentary's director of photography, Fejmi Daut, explained that he was only just able to squeeze himself and his handheld equipment into Hatidze’s cottage for Honeyland’s interior shots.
“It was very tight,” he recalled in the article. “There was no place to put a tripod. I was all the time behind the door. That was the only way we could shoot inside the house.” The only light that could be used was one lantern. However, the use of this and the natural light imbues Honeyland with intimacy and authenticity.
In addition, as there with no power in the village, the crew had to return to North Macedonia’s capital city, Skopje, every four days to recharge their camera batteries. They spent the remaining time on the shoot camped out near Hatidze’s cottage.
Meanwhile, there was the matter of a language barrier. Hatidze and her neighbours use an ancient Turkish vernacular. This was often challenging for the filmmakers - they often found it difficult to keep up with the conversation.
However, it also enabled them to make a moving and powerful film based on body language and visual imagery, drawing us in and reminding us of our fundamental connection to nature.