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How ‘Honeyland’ Became an Oscar Game Changer

The Oscar race is in full swing, and all eyes are on the big contenders: “Joker”! “Marriage Story”! “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”!

Yet one little-known movie amid the star-studded titles has quietly broken ground.

“Honeyland” is the first film to be nominated for best documentary and best international feature (the category formerly known as best foreign-language film). It follows Hatidze Muratova, a middle-aged beekeeper whose peaceful life in the North Macedonian countryside is disrupted when a chaotic family moves in next door.

The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year and came out on top with three awards, including the grand jury prize for documentary in the world cinema showcase.

It went on to win accolades at smaller festivals across the globe and is still riding high. It has a 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and, in December, The New York Times critic A.O. Scott named it the best movie of 2019.

The film, he wrote, “is nothing less than a found epic, a real-life environmental allegory and, not least, a stinging comedy about the age-old problem of inconsiderate neighbors.”

“Honeyland” is the underdog in the international feature category. It’s the feature-length debut of the directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, and it’s competing with two much-talked-about titles by veteran filmmakers: Bong Joon Ho’s comedy thriller, “Parasite,” and Pedro Almodóvar’s drama, “Pain and Glory.”

In the documentary category, it’s up against “American Factory,” the first Netflix film from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company.

So why has a movie about a poor woman in an isolated village from little-known filmmakers resonated with viewers around the world?

At the outset, “Honeyland” captures Muratova going about her daily life. We see her singing to her bees; selling her honey in Skopje, the North Macedonian capital; and caring for her ailing, octogenarian mother, who is half-blind and hard of hearing.

Then we meet the new neighbors: Hussein Sam, his wife, their seven children and their cattle and chickens. Where Muratova is calm and cheerful, Sam’s family is raucous and ill-tempered (not to mention foul-mouthed). Their differences become problematic when Sam takes a stab at beekeeping and breaks Muratova’s golden rule: Leave half of the honey for the bees.

Sam may come off as the villain — his ways threaten the fate of both Muratova and her bees. Then again, he’s merely a father trying to provide for his family and satisfy an impatient buyer. His predicament, the directors said, is just one element that makes “Honeyland” a universal story.

“The film works like a mirror,” Kotevska said in a phone interview. “Some people recognize themselves in Hatidze. Some recognize themselves in the other family.”

Their quarrel propels the narrative forward. Then there are touching moments between Muratova and her bedridden mother, who is acutely aware of her daughter’s heavy load. The filmmakers also capture the growing bond between Muratova and one of Sam’s sons, who often escapes into her quiet world after shouting matches with his father.

The result is a nuanced tale that touches on loneliness, capitalism and a dying way of life. Most of all, Stefanov said, he and Kotevska wanted to show how greed functions on “a very basic level” — in this case, on a remote patch of land inhabited by a handful of people.

Critics have been singing the film’s praises. The Los Angeles Times wrote that few documentaries “have offered such an intimately infuriating, methodically detailed allegory of the earth’s wonders being ravaged by the consequences of human greed.”

The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “The chronicle that Stefanov and Kotevska have distilled abounds in moments of unguarded discovery — moments that can be tender, humorous, rackety or serene.”

Still, Stefanov and Kotevska had no idea they would be heading to the Oscars. “After Sundance, it was clear that the film is good and people love it,” Stefanov said. “But we didn’t expect two nominations.”

They didn’t even expect to tell the story to begin with.

The directors stumbled upon Muratova’s beehives while doing research for an environmental documentary. After meeting her, they were intrigued by her beekeeping traditions, which go back generations.

They went on to shoot more than 400 hours of footage over the course of three years, working in rough conditions. Muratova lived in a small, ramshackle hut with no electricity. Stefanov and Kotevska would visit for a few days at a time and sleep in tents. Their only plan was to wait for compelling shots.

The movie’s Oscar nomination for best international feature, Kotevska said, is proof that fiction and nonfiction work should not be judged separately. (Whether a documentary will ever be nominated for best picture is a different story.)

“Our understanding of film is that it shouldn’t have boundaries,” Kotevska said. “Good storytelling is good storytelling.”

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