Making Oscar history, 'Honeyland' shatters borders

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This image released by Neon shows Hatidze Muratova in a scene from "Honeyland," nominated for an Oscar for best documentary and best international feature film. (Neon via AP)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska were in a hard-to-reach area of Northern Macedonia — about as far from the Oscars as possible — when they came upon the beekeeper who would be their subject in their acclaimed documentary “Honeyland.”

While working on a short video commissioned by a nature conservancy project, the filmmakers met Hatidze Muratova, a middle-aged woman who ekes out a hardscrabble and solitary existence harvesting honey with ancient, sustainable methods across the craggy mountainous landscape of the former Yugoslav republic while caring for her half-blind and bedridden mother in a modest home without electricity.

In Muratova, they recognized not just a noble, almost timeless figure of environmental symbolism but an inspiring character deserving of attention. Muratova hadn’t set out to live in near isolation; while her village dwindled, she stayed behind to care for her mother. “Honeyland” is, in a way, her liberation.

“This woman is somebody who is a true talent and a great lover of humans,” Kotevska said in an interview by phone alongside Stefanov. “She’s an extrovert. But life conditions brought her where she is. She was trapped in that life. When we showed up, it was a way of freedom for her. It was a way of expressing her life and her story to us.”

Of all the personalities that will be coming to the Academy Awards on Sunday, few can hold a candle to Hatidze. She will be there, the filmmakers say, in what promises to be both an astounding culture clash and a triumphant moment for a humble, heroic woman who never sought the spotlight.

In Macedonia, Kotevska says, she’s living the role of “a national hero.” "People are obviously tired of fake heroes that are beyond everyone,” says Kotevska.

“Honeyland” has already made history. It’s the first film ever nominated for both best documentary and best international film, the category formerly dubbed best foreign language film. The dual honors make “Honeyland” a quietly revolutionary Oscar nominee, one that speaks to both the increasingly boundless nature of documentary filmmaking and the specific greatness of “Honeyland.”

The film tracks Muratova’s life, including astoundingly intimate scenes with her mother, Nazife, and her sustainable methods of wild beekeeping. Muratova takes half of the honey and leaves the other half for the bees, a balance that allows the combs to continue and flourish. But when a chaotic and unruly family of nine moves in next door and tries to crudely practice beekeeping with less patience, “Honeyland” becomes a starkly simple environmental allegory.