Film crew spent 3 years in remote Balkan hamlet. Will they ever leave?

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Film crew spent 3 years in remote Balkan hamlet. Will they ever leave?
Hatidze Muratova, left, a beekeeper and star of the documentary “Honeyland,” and director Tamara Kotevska inside Muratova’s new house, still under construction, in the village of Dorfulija, North Macedonia, July 10, 2020. Using prize money won by the film, the makers bought Muratova a new home, raising ethical conundrums that documentary filmmakers have long grappled with. Laura Boushnak/The New York Times.

by Patrick Kingsley

BEKIRLIJA (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When the producer and two directors of “Honeyland” returned to the setting of their documentary in North Macedonia for the first time since it earned two Oscar nominations in February, something fundamental had changed.

The film chronicles the tensions between Hatidze Muratova, a local beekeeper, and a farmer in the remote hamlet of Bekirlija. Squeezed between two rocky hills and circled by imperial eagles, the village was still reachable only in an off-road vehicle, via a steep, rutted track. Most of the houses were still in ruins, slowly sliding into the undergrowth.

And Muratova, one of the hamlet’s last inhabitants and the star of “Honeyland,” was still waiting for the filmmakers with a smile and a strong coffee.

But Muratova’s cramped, dark living room, site of the movie’s most moving scene, no longer felt lived in.

“Now this place and these people are different,” said a wistful Ljubomir Stefanov, one of the film’s two co-directors, sitting in Muratova’s garden. “And I can feel that she feels that this is not her only home.”

That was largely thanks to Stefanov and his fellow filmmakers. Using prize money won by the film, he and his colleagues had found her a new house in Dorfulija, a larger and wealthier village about half an hour’s drive away. She now divides her time between the two villages.

And that change speaks to a wider ethical conundrum that Stefanov and his colleagues have grappled with since finishing filming — one that has long troubled documentary filmmakers. As observers, should they ever help their subjects? And as humans, how could they ever not?

Some documentary crews maintain a professional distance even after filming stops.

“But we decided to break that rule,” said Atanas Georgiev, the film’s producer.

The film depicts how Muratova and Hussein Sam, a seminomadic farmer, tried to coexist in one of the poorest pockets of North Macedonia.

At the time of filming, Muratova lived year-round in Bekirlija, while Sam’s chaotic family usually only visited during the summer, disrupting Muratova’s quiet existence.

The film was shot on a shoestring budget, but grossed a little over $1 million, and turned its makers into darlings of the documentary circuit. It also made Muratova perhaps the world’s most famous beekeeper.

It won three prizes at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for best documentary and best international feature at this year’s Academy Awards. A.O. Scott, the co-chief film critic of The New York Times, named it the No. 1 movie of 2019.

In a simpler world, Georgiev, Stefanov and his co-director, Tamara Kotevska, would be basking in their newfound success, and focusing on new projects.

But the “Honeyland” directors, together with two cameramen, spent three years, on and off, visiting these families.

That intense process ultimately shoved Muratova and Sam, vulnerable people who had never previously even been to a cinema, into the media glare. And the complexities of this transition created a clash between the filmmakers’ professional duties as cleareyed observers and their subjects’ emotional expectations of them as humans and friends.

Now the filmmakers find themselves unable to leave entirely — serving as mediators to, and occasionally protagonists in, the local tensions to which they once only bore witness.

“For the film crew,” said Muratova, “it was more demanding to deal with us after the film than during the filming itself.”

Both members of North Macedonia’s Turkish minority, Muratova, 56, and Sam, 70, have similar roots in rural poverty, but markedly different approaches to life.

Calm and gentle, Muratova has a deep and respectful relationship with nature, treating her bees almost as collaborators. Sam has a more haphazard way with his cows, viewing them almost as antagonists.

Muratova never married, while Sam and his wife, Ljutvie, have eight rambunctious children.

In the film, relations between Muratova and Sam were bad; Sam ignored Muratova’s advice about how to start his own bee colony, leading his bees to attack hers and ruining Muratova’s entire livelihood.

But in relative terms, the period depicted in the film proved to be a rare period of calm in a conflict that had begun long before filming started, and which has escalated since it finished. During postproduction, the two became locked in a dispute about a communal well in Bekirlija. Sam wanted its water for his cows, while Muratova said it was only for human use.

Then there was a legal battle over an incident that predated the film, in which Muratova was attacked by Sam’s dogs.

Sucked into the dispute, the crew tried to stay neutral by providing legal assistance to both parties, and they mediated an agreement by which Muratova would withdraw her complaint in exchange for Sam’s promise to abide by a set of principles about his future behavior.

To lessen the pressure on himself in refereeing the relationship, Georgiev created a foundation that works with the families independently of the crew. A volunteer social worker now helps both families overcome a never-ending list of logistical and social challenges, including setting up bank accounts and enrolling them in social security.

“It’s an avalanche” of issues, said Julijana Daskalov, the foundation’s program manager.

Even with this help, Georgiev is still often drawn into the disputes. When he and the two directors visited in July, they were immediately overwhelmed by a new barrage of issues.

Muratova had lost her new house key, so the producer had to find the workman with the spare. Inside the house, the taps were dry, so Georgiev called the mayor to reconnect the water. Then Sam wanted help with a grant application, and griped about the problem with the well. Meanwhile, someone had pilfered Muratova’s honey, and she blamed Sam.

“It’s impossible!” sighed Georgiev. “We are filmmakers, not social workers.”

Intervening is often thankless anyway.

Moments before leaving, Sam pulled him aside to ask why he hadn’t been in contact so much during the coronavirus lockdown.

“You haven’t been calling,” Sam said. “I thought you’d abandoned us.”

Yet Georgiev has been anything but absent. In fact, the social worker felt he had made himself too available. In addition to finding Muratova a new house, he and his team bought Sam a new truck and fixed his family’s chimney.

This kind of involvement is partly a self-interested act, Georgiev said — a means of both salving the crew’s conscience for deriving professional benefit from the lives of both Sam and Muratova, and warding off public criticism.

But it is also “kind of a payback,” Georgiev said. “Usually you don’t interfere with your protagonists — but as soon as we realized ‘Honeyland’ would be very successful, we thought we had to do something.”

Still, the transformation of Muratova’s life is not necessarily something to mourn, Stefanov said.

“Life is not an infinite process — it has phases,” he said. “And this is her wish.”

And even with her newfound fame, Muratova said she still remained true to her vocation. At her old home in Bekirlija, she proudly unveiled her latest bowl of liquid honey. But she refused a request to open up her hives, hidden in the crags of a nearby mountain, for fear the heat of the noon sun would harm the honeycombs.

“Even if I’m in a film,” she said, “I’m still going to take care of my bees.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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