Filming the Sundance-awarded “Honeyland,” which screens this week at IDFA, in a remote North Macedonia locale without roads or electricity, it was easy to get lost, confesses cinematographer Fejmi Daut.
“It was too hard to decide what would be the storyline in the beginning,” says the debut DP. The editing process for the story of a traditional beekeeper, led by producer Atanas Georgiev, took a year, going through 400 hours of footage.
“We started with one simple idea – just to present the life of Hatidze and her mother. And after the second family appeared there we just started to negotiate with them if it was possible to interconnect them.”
But Daut, who filmed the no-budget project on three kinds of Nikon DSLRs for three years, working alongside cinematographer Samir Ljuma, says the team often felt unsure what their film was about.
With two directors as well as two DPs – Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov teamed on the project – Faut says they struggled to find the story through-line. What saved them from getting lost in all the footage and the dozens of possible side stories was the focus on ecology.
They filmed the story with such basic gear, Faut says, “because we owned this equipment.”
It was nearly inconceivable at the time, shooting from 2015, that the docu would pick up a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, be distributed in the U.S. by Neon and released in the U.K. by Dogwoof.
The filmmakers also struggled even to keep up with what their subject, Hatidze, was saying, says Daut, adding he was the only one who understood the Turkish dialect she speaks. “There was no time to translate,” he adds.
The film follows her life and work, scraping by, harvesting high-grade, natural honey from bees while caring for her dying mother.
The unplanned arrival of a noisy, opportunistic neighbor added tension and gave the story dramatic new complications, Faut recalls. The rival honey-harvesting clan tries to scale up operations and make them much more profitable, delivering a sobering message on the consequences of abandoning traditional, sustainable agriculture.
The low-cost, low-profile filming approach allowed them to film a story no proper film crew could have accessed, catching stunning natural scenes and light. But the wild location presented challenges too, Daut says, noting that he was just able to squeeze himself and the handheld gear into the cottage of the protagonist for interior shots.
“The only light we used was one lantern. The night that the mother died it was like the light from the moon coming in from the exterior. But it was a small battery lamp that we used in the tent – we camped for almost three years in the yard of the house.”
No other crew, lights or sound equipment would have fit, Daut says. This meant that everything seen in the ramshackle home is an authentic, unstaged moment.
“It was very tight,” Daut says. “There was no place to put a tripod. I was all the time behind the door. That was the only way we could shoot inside the house.”
A location without power also meant that after three or four days of shooting the camera batteries ran out, forcing the team to return to the capital, Skopje, to recharge. So it went for 100 shooting days in a setting that equipment trucks would never be able to reach.
Creating a consistent look to the footage, shot in all manner of varying light, was another major challenge. Daut spent a month going through the material in post, using DaVinci Resolve editing software to grade the color into a consistent palate but found the directors had little interest in the result.
Instead the directors opted to do more basic color fixes using Adobe Premiere. “It still bothers me,” he says, grinning ironically.