Oscars: How 'Honeyland' and 'For Sama' Portray Battles on Different Fronts

Honeyland -For Sama - Publicity Stills - Split - H 2019
Lljubo Stefanov; Courtesy of PBS

Filmmakers from two of the 15 shortlisted documentary features reveal how a story about bees became one about fighting for a woman’s livelihood and how a depiction of war-torn Aleppo became a study of one family’s survival.

HONEYLAND

Aremote village in the mountains of Macedonia is the setting for Honeyland, a documentary by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov that follows Hatidze Muratova as she maneuvers through the wild and treacherous landscape to collect honey using primitive beekeeping techniques. What begins as an intimate nature doc and character study soon turns into an emotional thriller: When a nomadic family moves in next door to the home Hatidze shares with her mother, their attempts to collect honey threaten the bees' ecosystem and Hatidze's livelihood.

Kotevska and Stefanov described, in an email exchange with THR, what drew them to Honeyland's setting and how Hatidze's story slowly unfolded in front of their cameras over a four-year shoot.

How were you introduced to Hatidze, and what made you interested in following her for the film?

TAMARA KOTEVSKA Honeyland is a four-year adventure that started with the discovery of the primordial-looking beehives on the steep canyon cliffs of River Bregalnica, central Macedonia. As a matter of fact, we came to this area with an assignment to do research for a short documentary about the river. But discovering the beehives, and therefore discovering Hatidze, completely changed our motivation about the story we wanted to make. Witnessing the incredible life energy this woman possesses as a complete opposite of her extremely poor life conditions, also the rare profession she has, was the strongest motive for us to keep thinking about the documentary in this direction and stay faithful to shooting in extreme conditions.

What precautions did you take when filming near the bees in particular?

KOTEVSKA Many times there was no time to think of any safety measurements concerning the bees. Incredible scenes just started happening immediately after we arrived, and we had to find our way around them. In the beginning of the shoot, we were not well prepared for situations with the bees. The only way we had to learn how to approach them and what to do was Hatidze. She explained to us the bee "mentality" and she showed us that nothing is dangerous if you approach it with wisdom and nonaggression.

At times the film feels more like a narrative feature than a documentary. Did you have specific goals in mind for the tone?

KOTEVSKA We always take this statement as a compliment because, after all, we try to follow one very simple rule of filmmaking: Documentaries should look like fiction and fiction should look like documentaries. Achieving this, we have achieved the basic idea of an audiovisual story — to feel so exciting as if it's not real life, and yet to believe every second of it.

Were there moments when Hatidze, or any of the film's subjects, seemed guarded or vulnerable while being filmed?

KOTEVSKA This is the very first problem that any documentary filmmaker faces: the mask of his protagonist. In order to be ready for the problems we could possibly face with our protagonists, we did a lot of observation of their ways of life and rhythm of movement before we actually turned the cameras on. We spontaneously found out which shots should be static and where it required movement and a different dynamic. Luckily, with Hatidze, she simply wanted to tell her story to the world. She had so much joy every time we would show up in Bekirlija, and she enjoyed showing us what she does, how she works with the bees, how she climbs the rocks, even how she communicates with her mother. However, the same didn't happen with the family of nomads that threw "sticks and stones" at us at the beginning. But even when we finally found mutual understanding after months of presence, they almost caused a "heart attack" to our DOPs with almost all their actions. But thanks to this, they gave a very nice contrast to Hatidze's world. — TYLER COATES

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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FOR SAMA

Before war reached Aleppo, it was one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and the largest city in Syria. Waad al-Kateab was a marketing student living there when military confrontation against anti-government forces began in 2012, turning Aleppo into a war zone assailed by gunfire and air strikes. When al-Kateab spoke with THR amid the third anniversary of the recapture of Aleppo by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, her pain over being one of the last survivors to leave the city was clear.

“There is this feeling of loss which will never leave,” al-Kateab says. "You can’t just forget. You can’t ignore that feeling."

Al-Kateab was among many activists who documented the Battle of Aleppo, a conflict arising from Syria’s civil war — the second-deadliest war of the 21st century. She connected with codirector Edward Watts (Escape From ISIS) after finding refuge in London with her family, and they worked through 500 hours of footage to tell a story not just of war but of people affected by it.

"From the point of view of us as victims, people usually don’t care about us," she says. "They don’t look at the real people who are behind the scenes — the laughter and the hope normal people are creating just to stay alive."

For Sama includes, along with the tragedies of war, personal and uplifting moments to show that even the most horrific circumstances can have glimmers of hope. This includes al-Kateab’s wedding to Hamza, his courageous actions alongside fellow doctors in the last standing hospital of East Aleppo, and the birth of their daughter, Sama.

Initially nervous about including private moments, al-Kateab says she recognized that sharing such scenes could bridge the gap between an embattled Aleppo and the rest of the world.

"It was really important to break the wall between people outside and inside and show we are human beings like them," she says. “People know that there is war in Syria, but to go into these everyday lives … will really change people’s perspectives and go into their hearts and minds." — SHARAREH DRURY

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.