Bathed in the yellow hues of rural Macedonia, a woman traverses a dangerous cliff to reach a pot of gold. Her name is Atidze, and she is one of the world's last known wild beekeepers. Like the years she wears on her face, her craft has been honed by generations. This dance with the bees is a delicate one: "Some for us, some for them," she says. Wearing no protective mask, she lifts iridescent gobs of honey from a hive swarmed by thousands of bees, leaving more than enough behind for the insects to feed on.
The scene plays as if lifted from a folk tale or a children's picture book. It is, in fact, the beginning of Honeyland, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov's visually sumptuous cinéma vérité documentary, which won the World Cinema Grand Jury Award at this year's Sundance and recently screened at New Directors/New Films. Shot over the course of three years, the directors, part of a six-person crew, intimately captured Atidze's day-to-day life in this remote region of the Balkan Peninsula.
Her village, long since abandoned, is the only home she's ever known. She lives in the ruins in a ramshackle dirt-floored house without running water or electricity. When not tending to her bees, roaming the landscape, or selling her enviable honey at the market in Skopje, Atidze spends time with her bedridden mother, whom she cares for tenaciously.
Things might have stayed this way forever were it not for a plot twist that couldn't have been written any better than it happened in real life. One day, a raucous family of itinerant herders barrels its way into Atidze's idyll, setting up shop next door. Mother, father, seven children, and their herd of unruly cattle produce a cacophony of noise and chaos that seems to have landed from another world entirely.
Seeing an opportunity to feed his children, the father is eager for Atidze to teach him her livelihood, and she does so with open arms, diligently and with great patience. But the patriarch is in dire straits—he has nine mouths to feed, and he's in debt to a Bosnian businessman who demands that he produce honey at a faster pace than Atidze's methods will yield.
Ultimately, the father's attempts to make a quick buck prove disastrous. After all, Atidze's intuitive reverence for the natural order doesn't simply come from the kindness of her heart. It's practical; stripped of honey, the bees will die, and a domino effect is set into motion, destroying a fragile ecological balance.
Among many things, Honeyland is a sensitively observed yet unsentimental portrait of the tension between sustainability and industrialization. It is also a heart-wrenching and often tenderly funny story of a daughter's devotion to her mother. The film manages to romanticize Atidze's disappearing way of life without condescending to her or ignoring the nuance. In one scene, Atidze wistfully ruminates on what her life could have been if she'd gotten married or moved away. Cinematographers Samir Ljuma and Fejmi Daut capture Atidze's intimate world with a visual poetry that's matched only by the fierce resilience and love in the beekeeper's heart.
No Film School caught up with Ljuma to discuss shooting with entirely natural light in chaotic and remote locales, the responsibility he and his crew felt to their subjects after production, and more.
No Film School: I saw this last night and was completely floored. I cried! I was so attached to the main character, Atidze. The entire time I was wondering how the hell you pulled this off. It must have been an incredible production that spanned many years. You’re basically living inside this woman's subjectivity, and it's made so much more intense by the fact that she's in the middle of nowhere. So you feel like you're completely immersed in her life.
Samir Ljuma: We are so happy that we found her and so happy that she opened herself to us. We built such a good relationship with all the characters in the movie.
We shot 400 hours of material during this approximately 100 shooting days, which took place during three years of the production. In this period of time, we really became kind of family. Not only the team that we were working with—we were just four of us—but also the main protagonist, and then the other family with eight kids.
The village [the main character lives in] is kind of close to the capital [Skopje], but so far in terms of the environment and accessibility. It was very hard to get to this village. We always needed a special vehicle, a 4x4, which we didn't own. We were struggling with securing the car every weekend from friends or from supporters. Many times, we got stuck in the mud. We couldn't bring much equipment, so we were limited to only four days maximum on each visit. While we were there, we were camping. We ate what we brought. Those were very interesting conditions to work in.
NFS: Can you back up a little bit and explain how you and the directors first encountered Atidze?
Ljuma: Before we started with Atidze, our crew—two directors and two cinematographers—were working on another documentary. We were so drawn into Atidze's story and filming Honeyland that we completely forgot about our previous documentary and abandoned it entirely.
Ljubomir Stefanov, the director and one of the producers, has expertise in environmental topics. He didn't go to film school. He's an environmentalist, designer, and photographer. He was working on United Nations projects for the preservation and conservation of nature. A Swiss organization asked him to make a documentary on beekeeping and the importance of the bees. He heard about some of the people who still use the old method of beekeeping, with wild bees, in one of the abandoned regions in Macedonia. They went to visit.
When they came back with the photos of Atidze, I was like, "Oh my God." Immediately, I fell in love with her. She is a character! She's so natural and so welcoming and warm. Even growing up in those surroundings, without any formal education, we were surprised at how smart she is. She's a polyglot—she speaks five languages. They are mostly local languages, but completely different from each other.
One of the things she told us in the beginning was: "I was dreaming that one day a TV crew would come and film me while walking around my village." So she was excited. Somehow, we made her dream come true.
NFS: Did she understand what was interesting to you and your crew about her story?
Ljuma: No! We were more focused on the way she was taking care of the bees in the first half of the year. we were shooting. We didn't know what would happen next. We were also learning; this was the first time we had been around wild bees. But then, while we were there, of course, we witnessed Atidze's relationship with her mother. And then we decided to follow that part of the story. We thought it was crucial. And then, during the period in which we were shooting, we realized that actually, Atidze, our main protagonist, is the bee, and her mother is the queen bee. That is the reason Atidze is still there as the last citizen of this abandoned village.
And then the other family came. We needed to establish some kind of relationship with them because they were not trusting in the beginning. We needed to find a way to approach them. We were having a lot of discussions about whether we should shoot them or not, but we saw how interesting the whole situation was becoming. And as Atidze started interacting with them, we just let everything happen. Later, we developed a very nice relationship with the family as well. Otherwise, we couldn't have captured all those moments.
"After this, I think I'm ready to go and shoot in any kind of condition."
NFS: Let's talk about the strenuous nature of this shoot. What was most difficult, from your perspective, as a DP?
Ljuma: The conditions! We would spend all day shooting because we were trying to use as much daylight as possible. The days were very long. And during the summer, it's very hot. We were sleeping in the tents, we didn't have proper equipment for camping. So we were very hot during the day or very cold at night. It's nothing to complain about, because in the end, we learned a lot, especially from Atidze. After this, I think I'm ready to go and shoot in any kind of condition.
NFS: What kind of equipment did you have? I can imagine it was pretty limited based on what you were saying about how little you could transport in the car.
Ljuma: Yeah, we were limited. For example, we didn't have a sound recordist because we didn't have space in the car. We were shooting with DSLR, mostly because that was what we had available. And also, because of the environment: we were shooting the scenes of Atidze interacting with her mother in their tiny house. That was the only place where the two interacted, Atidze's mother is stuck on that bed because of her health.
But also, we needed to walk a lot with Atidze. She covers [a lot of ground] in her work. She's in really good health condition. Sometimes we were not prepared for that much walking, especially carrying the equipment. But we needed to follow her—to go to these places where she kept these beehives. They were pretty far from the village.
NFS: And they were up mountains and cliffsides!
Ljuma: You know, the scene on the cliff...We had a very dangerous moment there. The bees attacked my colleague. I don't know how he managed to climb that cliff to run away from the angry bees that attacked him.
"We only shot one scene with stabilization."
We were trusting Atidze because she was not wearing beekeeper protection most of the time. We didn't have any protection from the bees, either. We were exposed most of the time. But somehow, the trust that she showed us while treating the bees made us trust that we would be fine. I was never stung by the bees; I was following her advice. One of the things that she told us is that it's better not to wear black. Because when you're dressed in black, the bees will attack you. I don't know why; she couldn't explain. It was something probably that she learned from her parents or grandparents, who were also beekeepers.
NFS: You mentioned you used DSLRs. What was your rig, exactly? With lenses and all?
Ljuma: We used all kinds of DSLRs. Mostly, the movie was shot with Nikon 810 and 800. That was how we started. And then we could afford to buy a Nikon D5 with different lenses—usually, some 15mm with F14, 85, 1.8, 105 mm macro, 2.8. And some zoom lenses—2470 mm, and 8400 for some of the scenes. Also, we used Canon for certain times when the Nikons were not available.
In the beginning, we were using the Osmo and drones, but then we decided that we didn't want that kind of look. We wanted most of the movie to be shot handheld.
NFS: Wow, so you were physically stabilizing the footage while in these really unpredictable, chaotic situations—especially with the kids and the animals.
Ljuma: We only shot one scene with stabilization. We used an Osmo for the particular scene, at the beginning of the film, when she is approaching a cliff to one of the beehives. It was steep and dangerous.
When we [first started production] we thought we were going to use the Osmo more. We thought we needed more production value. But then, as we shot more, we decided we wanted the cinema verite approach with handheld for action shots as much as possible. The rest was shot from the tripod with fixed cameras. The landscapes and some of the scenes inside their house were shot with a fixed camera because it is a really small room.
On the set of 'Honeyland'
NFS: How did you light that small room? The scenes in there were gorgeous. You seemed to rely largely on candlelight.
Ljuma: This is something that we are definitely proud of! There is no electricity in the village. The conditions are like in the 18th or 19th century. We discussed whether we could bring some LED lights to support, but we decided [against it]. Today, you can easily push many cameras to a high ISO to get completely noise-free shadows. We decided not to use any kind of additional lighting support, except what was there.
"I think that with natural light, you can provide the most extraordinary results."
The big masters of cinematography are always citing the paintings of Dutch artists from the 18th century as an inspiration for how to use natural light. I think that with natural light, you can provide the most extraordinary results. You can easily create a strong sense of mood with window light, even if the contrast is in the shot. And you can create a beautiful contrast when your subject is close to the window. You can create a nice even key in this situation.
For the day scenes, we only had one little window and the entrance door, which was sometimes closed, sometimes open. It gave us this chiaroscuro look. When it was overcast, there was a lack of light. For that kind of situation, we used a whiteboard bouncer on the ceiling, just to get a little bit of light in the darkest spots—to enhance the details in the shadows. And that was all.
For the night shots, there were candles that Atidze was using, and these oil lamps. So that was the only light source that we were using. We really liked the results.
One of the interesting details is that there is a stove in the room, and there is no chimney. So it's very smokey in there. In the morning, when there was a light coming straight to the window, we used this smoke to highlight the light.
It was a good thing that we were two cinematographers [on this project] because it's really hard to stay long in that room. I was shocked that her mother was living there, and Atidze herself, too. Because when there is smoke in there, you inhale the carbon and you start feeling dizzy. So I would switch with my colleague. When he got dizzy, I would continue shooting. We spent a lot of time in that room!
My colleague understands Turkish, but because the language that they're speaking is very archaic, most of the time he couldn't understand what they were talking about. And I don't speak Turkish, so I didn't understand anything. I was only there to observe and to shoot their interaction. Her mother, most of the time, didn't even know that we were there shooting because she can hardly hear.
NFS: So you were relying upon facial expressions and body language?
Ljuma: Yeah. Trying to feel what was happening. For example, I didn't know what she was saying, but I felt that she was nervous when she started knocking with her leg nervously in one scene.
NFS: Were there moments where you were worried that your presence there might influence the authenticity, or the direction, of their lives? How did you navigate the ethics of being there and observing, when their lives might have been different if you weren't?
Ljuma: You know, we were accepted as part of the family, so we never had the feeling that we disturbed her. We felt responsible afterward when we stopped shooting because she is keeping calling us. She misses us. We were not only present to follow her life, but we become part of her life, you know? We are visiting her as much as we can. We didn't stop caring about her.
We started a fundraising campaign. On our website, there is a possibility to donate. Everybody who saw the movie probably will want to try this honey. But there is not enough honey. We can sell small sample jars of the honey to the people who want to donate. And all the money we collect, we're going to invest in securing a better future for Atidze, but also to support the entire community—bringing them back to the natural way of beekeeping that Atidze is promoting. It's all about a fair share: take half for you, and leave half for the bees. She was not exploiting nature. And that's also the formula for good honey; it creates a guarantee for more in the future.
Ljuma: As a filmmaker, you shoot a documentary and then you release it. Most of the time audiences ask about what happened with the people in the movie. We couldn't promise anything to Atidze and to that other family—they gave us their lives to observe without any promise that we could pay them because we didn't have the money. But by the end of production, as a way of saying thanks, we provided a small, very modest house for Atidze in the neighboring village, where there is at least electricity. That way she would not spend the cold winters alone. The new village is not far from the old one. She will keep doing what she was doing with her life: taking care of the wild bees. For the other family, we left the Jeep—the car that we bought in the middle of production. We wanted to leave them with something that they need for making their lives easier.
NFS: Did you go to film school? What's your film education background?
Ljuma: I didn't graduate from a film school. When I was studying, I decided to leave Macedonia and to go to the Dominican Republic, and then to Ecuador, to shoot projects. To be honest, No Film School is something that provided me most of the information that I needed! It's my major source of film education.
I don't want to say that film school is a bad thing. It's really good because of the networking and everything. But for example, for younger cinematographers, or students, or people who want to work in film, I think the most important thing is to assist in other films. That's how I started. When I was a student, I just offered myself as an assistant. That's how I learned the most.
I love that No Film School interviews filmmakers for articles. It gives kind of a shortcut for students, or for anybody who is interested in how movies are made. You can sneak in and have a closer look without spending four years at university!