- Directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska talk about their documentary Honeyland
- The story of a traditional beekeeper in rural North Macedonia has been nominated for two Oscars
Since they first screened Honeyland at the Sundance film festival in January 2019, directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska have toured relentlessly, bringing their documentary to dozens of film festivals around the world.
Their efforts paid off this week with two Academy Award nominations, for best documentary feature and best international feature (formerly known as best foreign-language film).
"We didn't plan this," Stefanov said of Honeyland's success on the festival circuit, when he and Kotevska spoke to the Post in a recent interview in New York.
Honeyland began as a commissioned work from an environmental group, only to evolve into an entirely different film as the two explored rural North Macedonia. They were drawn to Hatidze Muratova, a beekeeper working from traditions centuries old. By following her life over several years, they found a way to tackle some of society's biggest problems.
"It describes us," Stefanov says of the film's appeal. "It shows how greediness works, on a very basic level. You see it in a remote place, but everywhere else in the world greed works the same. You have a good life and somebody comes and says, 'I will give you more.' And you think, 'Give me more'."
On its surface Honeyland resembles any number of nature documentaries. But those who watch it are struck by the filmmakers' unusual empathy and insight. Convincing viewers to take a chance on their work is one of the reasons why they brought it to so many festivals. That, and the opportunity to see the world themselves.
"It's priceless," Kotevska says. "Not just the places we saw, but the reactions from people. Seeing how an audience reacts in France or India, it's a gift."
She singled out a viewer at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March. "He was an older man in his 60s who came to both screenings. He came to us with tears like I've never seen " tears, hugging us, and he starts telling his story, how much he connected with Hatidze, how he too spent all his life taking care of his mother.
"When she died, he wanted to leave, go and see the world, explore nature. But he will probably never have the courage to abandon Hong Kong. He told us, 'Don't let the big crowds on the streets fool you; human solitude is the same everywhere'."
Festival awards provided income for the year (shared equally with the rest of the crew). Stefanov and Kotevska remain deeply involved with Muratova, helping finance her new home and helping with her legal problems with her neighbours. They've also flown her to screenings, including one in New York where she sang to her delighted audience.
North Macedonia had not received an Oscar nomination in 25 years, since Before the Rain in 1994. Honeyland is also the first documentary to be nominated for a best international feature award. But the two left for a week in Ecuador rather than wait to hear the nominations announced.
"We don't enjoy this life," Kotevska says. "I don't like people bringing us food, taking care of us. When we went home for a month, it was the best time, making your own eggs, not waiting for someone to bring you something."
Stefanov is working on a new documentary and an animated feature. Kotevska is putting together financing for a non-fiction feature she will write and direct. They were still recovering from a "scary" and "strange" critics' dinner the night before. "I've never felt embarrassed speaking in public," Kotevska says. "But yesterday …"
"We weren't ready for it," Stefanov admits. "You're on the stage, and in front of you there is a table with the director and stars of Goodfellas."
"The people who shaped everyone's reality," Kotevska continues. "What can you say to them? Everyone else spoke for five or 10 minutes, and we were finished after like five seconds."
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