Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is the official submission from North Macedonia to the 92nd Academy Awards for Best International Feature. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize. The International Documentary Association gave it an award for Best Cinematography. It’s up for a Spirit Award and a PGA Award. It made the Oscars shortlist in not one, but two categories. Given its critical acclaim, the film could be nominated in both those categories. The first category is the aforementioned Best International Feature. The second is Best Documentary Feature. Being in both categories, this film has the potential to make history.
As far as I can tell, there has never been a film to be nominated for Best International Feature aka Best Foreign Language Film and nominated for Best Documentary Feature in the same year. First off, the Best Foreign Language Film category hardly ever has a documentary as its nominee. In almost 50 years, the only documentary in that category that I could find was Le Bal (1983) from Algeria, which was recognized at the 56th Academy Awards. International films show up all the time in the Best Documentary Feature category, but none of them have ever been eligible or submitted to what’s now called the Best International Feature category. Over the years, other films have had the potential of being nominated in both these specific categories like the Italian film Fire at Sea (2016) and the Cambodian film The Missing Picture (2013), but none have managed to achieve dual nominations.
Critics have noted the film for its cinematography, and it would be my hope that it did get an Oscar nomination in the category of Best Cinematography. Unfortunately, no documentary has ever been nominated in this category, at least not in the past 50 years. International features do get nominated like last year’s Never Look Away (2018). Again, this film is eligible in the Best International Feature category, but whatever acclaim or success this film has probably won’t be enough to crack the near-century long shutout of documentaries from categories like Best Cinematography. It’s a shame because based on the camerawork, the editing and the direction from Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, this is no question one of the best films of the year and one of the best-looking films of the year.
Hatidze Muratova is the main subject of the documentary. She was born in 1964. She lives near Skopje, which is the largest city in North Macedonia. Yet, she lives in the rural and mountainous area. In fact, her home is not much more than a hut that probably consists of two rooms. The hut looks like it’s mainly made of stone or adobe brick. There isn’t any electricity, plumbing or running water. The only light comes from a small window that’s always open or a door that always stays open. At night, the only light is by candlelight. She’s a Turkish woman who lives a very humble life with little possessions. She has some pets, a dog and some kittens. Her only companion though is her elderly and very infirm mother.
She takes care of her mother named Nazife, who is 85 and has many ailments. She has a bad leg that prevents her from being able to walk. She’s mostly bed-ridden. She has bad hearing. She’s also blind in one eye. It’s not clear if the blindness was due to some kind of physical injury or some kind of infection or disease, but she keeps it covered for the most part. Despite these ailments, Nazife still remains fairly lucid and she’s able to speak and respond to Hatidze. They’re mostly loving and respectful to each other, but they do get into fights. Most of their moments are sweet and even heartbreaking. The times where they squabble are reminiscent of Grey Gardens (1976), one of the best documentaries ever made and certainly one of the best ever made about a mother and daughter living together.
Hussein Sam is another subject in this documentary, an almost antagonist subject to Hatidze. Hussein is a man who is probably around the same age as Hatidze, maybe younger, possibly in his late 40’s. He becomes Hatidze’s next door neighbor. He moves there with his family. He has a wife and children. It’s difficult to keep count of all the children or young people surrounding them, but it seems like Hussein has about five or six children. He definitely has five children who seem like they’re all under the age of 13. Yet, there might be a sixth child who is older than 13, but he’s only seen occasionally and I’m not sure if he lives with them or not.
Nevertheless, Hussein arrives with his family in a truck with a trailer attached. He’s come there to work as a farmer, mainly herding cows and maintaining an apiary. When the family first arrives, they’re mostly disruptive to the peaceful and quiet existence that Hatidze used to have. It starts with the children simply being loud and rowdy, making so much noise. There are shots of Hatidze looking at her neighbors with dismay and wariness. However, it’s funny how Hatidze actually ends up befriending the children and having them, particularly one of the eldest boys who I believe is named Alcho, hang out with her. Her relationship with Alcho becomes a pivotal point as her dismay and wariness toward Hussein only increases.
In an incredibly funny scene involving Hussein’s family herding cows, it’s clear that they don’t know what they’re doing or they barely know. The herding of cows is just haphazard and crazy, mainly due to the fact that Hussein has his children like Alcho trying to wrangle the animals that seem more wild than domesticated. Yet, their cattle business is only a minor annoyance to Hatidze who has to shoo away a cow or two that wanders into her yard.
What really rankles her is the apiary that Hussein and his family maintains. It rankles her because she also maintains her own apiary. It’s not clear, but she’s probably been beekeeping for most of her adult life. Hussein and his family feel like they just stumbled onto beekeeping yesterday. The beauty of the cinematography comes from watching Hatidze commune with nature and do her beekeeping more naturally, even if it means her scaling the side of a mountain, crossing a river and climbing a tree. She also treats and regards the bees, as if they’re her children and she cares for them. The best editing is when the filmmakers contrast her natural beekeeping with Hussein’s unnatural beekeeping where he treats them as commodities about which he doesn’t care.
The amazing way that this documentary is put together is the way in which it doesn’t feel like a documentary at all. There isn’t any voice-over narration and there aren’t traditional interviews. It’s shot and edited in such a way that the people don’t acknowledge or even perceive the cameras. It’s at times so intimate, raw and real. Yet, the scenes progress and the people exist in those scenes as if it were written, but, thankfully, it doesn’t feel written. It feels authentic and powerful.
Finally, there’s an undercurrent of women, their stations in life and their abilities and how these women are treated by society or the culture at large. Hatidze is a strong woman who has endured and survived a lot as many women have. This film is a gorgeous portrait of such a woman, a woman who has endured and survived. She has weathered a lot and she will continue to weather a lot. This film captures that about her so wondrously.
Not Rated but contains language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 29 mins.
Available on DVD and VOD.