Macedonian producer Atanas Georgiev came into spotlight when Honeyland, the documentary film he produced and edited, became the first ever film to be nominated both for Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film at the Oscars, in 2020. The feature-length debut for co-directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, it started its award-studded path by winning three awards at Sundance in 2019: the Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award and Cinematography Award for Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma. But this success was in fact a continuation of an unorthodox career that Georgiev started 20 years earlier when he graduated in editing at the Academy of Drama Arts in Skopje.
"I was interested in cinema since childhood, it was an accident that I ended up enrolling in the editing department at the film school, but I would say it was probably my destiny," he tells us on a Zoom call from the one of the many rooms in the world-renowned post-production services facility fx3x, whose credits include Hollywood blockbusters such as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Spiderman: Far from Home.
"We have everything here," he waves his hand around. "A cinema, all possible cameras and equipment, but more importantly, a great team: some 100
His own production company, Trice Films, is affiliated with fx3x, but it was a long way from his beginnings as editor on Ivo Trajkov's 2004 Valencia prize-winner The Great Water and editing assistant on Milcho Manchevski's Shadows (2007).
"I was lucky to start working on these big productions and gain this experience. Meanwhile, I started post-graduate studies in Vienna, and I discovered that editing documentaries was very attractive to me. The rules are different than in fiction and for me it's a great tool to express myself," he says.
He was living in Vienna with a group of other immigrants, both from the Balkans and EU countries, and this is what his first film as director, Cash & Marry, came out of. The Balkan immigrants like himself had to renew their visa every year, so he and the man who ended up being the film's protagonist, Marko, came up with the idea to make a film about getting married in order to get EU papers... and really get married in the process.
"It was a huge apartment with a bunch of us living there, and they guys from the EU were able to see our struggle. Being a young filmmaker in such an environment, I thought, it's a great opportunity to shoot a story about this. That's how it all started."
With this project, he applied to IDF's Ex Oriente in 2006 and was accepted. After that he took part in many other talent and development workshops all over Europe, but he primarily worked on his first film.
"It took a long time to make this film, seven years in total, including post-production, but in the end it was very well received on the festival circuit and from the audiences," he recalls.
"Documentary became a passion to me. I always had the chance to find more creativity in the editing, that's what I lived off and what I still live off, and it's something that still attracts me and keeps me fulfilled and happy. I can avoid all the problems that directors usually have when shooting, so it's kind of a way to escape and still be very creative."
The second film is the hardest
For his second feature-length documentary as producer, Avec l'amour, which world-premiered at Hot Docs 2017, Georgiev says it was like starting all over.
"They say the second film is more important than the first one," he says. "I knew there was a great film there, but it was really difficult to finance it and promote it when such a long time has passed since the previous one. It was like starting from the beginning, introducing myself, who I am, what I want to do... There is no rule that says if you made a successful first film, the second would be a piece of cake. No. It was really a struggle."
The film, directed by Ilija Cvetkovski, about the retired biology professor Dionis Pashlakov who tries to fulfil his fantasy of turning his unusual car collection into a museum in a small town, was not an easy sell for potential funders and at pitching markets.
"I had obstacles in finding people that would believe that you can make a film about banal things, about love, about something that is not politically or socially charged or immediately interesting to the industry," he recalls.
But nevertheless, this film became a success, not only at home but in the region as well, thanks to its outing in the documentary competition of the Sarajevo Film Festival 2017.
"Here in Macedonia it's one of the most watched documentaries in theatres ever. It had a huge success in the region as well, wherever we presented it was an audience favourite - laughter, tears, everything," he explains.
But it wasn't easy to get there, Georgiev and the team had no funding for promotion of the film, so they came up with a guerrilla marketing idea which overlapped with the story of fake news factories in Macedonia around the 2016 US elections. They launched a story on the internet that the film was in running for the Oscars and expected to win (in August!) and that Oliver Stone was coming to Macedonia to meet the protagonist of Avec l'amour.
"At the time it was the US elections with Trump, and a story came out that there was a huge fake news factory here in Macedonia. We were hired as a service to find characters for a social study project, and we decided to use that as a promotional tool for our film," he explains.
"It was supposed to be a project that should measure the spreading of fake news among the media. The idea was to start a debate with journalists and all people who could be involved in discovering fake news, but actually after this fake news that we spread, no one wanted to open a debate.
"Journalists were actually embarrassed to talk about this because they didn't realize it was fake and they were themselves part of the propaganda of guerrilla marketing. No one wanted to talk openly about that."
Georgiev went to Sarajevo with Avec l'amour, but he was also presenting a rough cut of Honeyland in the festival's Work in Progress section, where it was the only documentary and won the top prize, the TRT award worth €30,000.
"When we came home there was huge buzz in the media, everybody talked about Stone coming to Macedonia to visit Dionis. So it was a huge thing, news was talking about this without knowing it was fake. But we encountered a great acceptance from the audience, there was an open-air screening in the city park and 5,000 people came to see the film."
In a rare development, Dionis actually benefitted from all this public interest. His museum of cars started working and people from all over Europe have been coming to visit it.
Success of Honeyland
A similar thing happened with Hatice, the last woman wild beekeeper in Macedonia that Honeyland is about. However, this was a different level of public exposure: when the film was nominated for Oscars in two categories, Hatice became a huge local star, while the team were seen as exploiters - even though they bought a house for their protagonist.
"Hatice would be recognised on the street and stopped to give autographs and all that," Georgiev remembers. "It was so intense, I remember the week before we went to the Oscars, they were making some costumes especially for her and we were supposed to cross 200 meters to this design studio in Skopje and it took us 45 minutes. We were stopped by everyone. They would talk with her, they wanted to touch her and it was really intense and extremely weird, you don't expect that to happen with a documentary film.
"The rest of us became a target on social media. People were even writing to my mom, like, 'Your son got rich and what did he do to this poor woman?' And we did everything for her, we bought her a house, we hired a psychologist and a social worker, and still you have people that don't understand and they want to kill you. I had to switch off all my social media accounts."
But how did they get there in the first place? Honeyland is one of the most unique success stories in documentary industry in the last 20 years. It all started when a scout from Sundance saw the cut they presented at Sarajevo's Works in Progress.
"We showed 30 minutes of very rough selection without dialogue. We thought that the visual part was enough, that we don't even need to put subtitles because the little dialogue that we had was just small talk, and visuals were so rich that we succeeded to explain the story. It was obvious what was going on, this last female wild beekeeper, alone with her mom in this abandoned village, with no electricity... And then this other family arrives and don't respect the laws of what mother and daughter did for last 50 years... So it was a really successful presentation," he explains.
"We pitched it to a scout from Sundance, and she offered that they wait for us. We took another year of shooting and next year we approached the same contact and said we were ready. It was the right way to go for this film."
The timing was clearly right: they made a connection with the San Francisco Film Fund and the SFFILM Invest, both of which supported it all the way to distribution.
"I think the first contact at pitching in Sarajevo was crucial for development of the rest of the film. It opened many doors and we ended up getting a lot of funding from the US, and an offer from Submarine to be our world sales agent."
But Georgiev agreed only to sell them the rights for North America, knowing that once you sell a film to an American sales company, they are not interested in European markets. Even though he was not experienced in this field, Georgiev knew he had to talk to the right people.
"I was stressed and I asked many questions to people who went through the same thing. I talked to [Danish producer] Signe Byrge Sørensen, in a way she was my mentor, she had invaluable experience with The Act of Killing and taught me many things about distribution strategy and Oscars campaign," he recalls.
So with the idea to really allow his film an opportunity to be seen as widely as possible, Georgiev sold the international rights to the German company Deckert Distribution, and it turned out to be the right move: Deckert sold it to every European country and to many territories around the world.
In the US, the film's distributor was Neon and they were running the Oscar campaign, but they had no plans to show it to Academy members from Europe.
"Neon didn't intend to do special screenings for Academy members in Europe at all, it was I who insisted," says the producer. "Meanwhile I became an Academy member so I was watching all those films and I understood how this worked. For films from the European market it's very difficult to end up on the Oscars longlist because it's distributors that are running this. They have to approach Academy members so they can see the film and vote. But for such a small, unknown names like us with Honeyland, it's very difficult to promote it. I think I played the crucial role to negotiate with Neon to make a European campaign. We did special screening in Germany, Denmark, the UK, France, Italy... We organized events for them and it really made a difference."
Georgiev brought in the money for these screenings as well, from the Macedonian Film Fund. As the country's official Oscar submission, Honeyland was able to get promotional funding, and while Neon was handling the promotion in the US, Georgiev was able to use the money in a much more precisely directed way with the screenings for Academy members in Europe.
"Americans are very aggressive in promoting their films, they spend millions for the Oscar campaign. What we did was a hard job hiring the right people to invite the right people to the screenings in Europe. Otherwise you can't approach them, it's hard to get their attention," he explains.
Making of Honeyland
Georgiev was then the key person to bring Honeyland to its unexpected success after it was finished. But how did he work as producer while they were making the film?
"Honeyland was really unique," he says. "I never showed up at the shootings, because I was also the editor. The crew itself was very unusual: two first-time filmmakers and two cinematographers going on set without a sound guy because there was no room in the car. So it was very important for me to focus them and not be influenced by the protagonists so I purposely chose not to go there. I know how difficult it is when you know the characters, their background and how they live, to make the right decisions for the cut."
One of the co-directors, Stefanov, was very experienced in the logistics and approaching people, so Georgiev did not have to deal with that.
"But when it comes to the content, what's in the frame, I did my best to focus the filmmakers as to where to find the story, how to provoke it, how to shoot it with just one camera, how to use all these things," he says.
"As an editor and producer, it's very different how I deal with things," he continues. "I waited until the end and I went there to solve the problems with protagonists after the shooting, which I found extremely tricky. Because when you go there and put in all the effort to get closer to them and expose them on camera, you become a good friend and then, when money issues come into play, someone has to take that burden. It's great that the directors weren't affected because I came in and started to solve the issues between them. It was important for the crew to get rid of these problems and start living their own lives."
The team of Honeyland started a fundraising campaign to help both Hatice and the other family in the film start living decently, with giving away small jars of honey to people who donated.
"It was a real struggle and it lasted for almost two years after the film was released. It was like a daily job. I was spending so much energy and it was not completely successful because their lives are still unchanged and improved. I'm still worried what might happen in the future but it's not in my hands anymore, and it's supposed to be like that.
"We broke every rule for documentary filmmaking. It was my first big film that I was the producer on, I wasn't experienced how to react to such things. There are many things you have to learn if you want to make a really successful film. And I had to learn it in a very short time," he says.
Even though he was learning as he went along, Georgiev came up with an inventive strategy to fund Honeyland, which actually stemmed from a corporate video they were hired to make: he partnered with a big pharmaceutical company. So it ended up being a solely Macedonian production between Trice Films, Apollo Media and Pharmachem, which gave him a rare freedom.
"All the funding we received later was non-returnable, so it was easy for me to handle it. I wasn't influenced by some other producers or distributors and it was just me making the decisions," he says.
Inspired by challenges
The success of Honeyland meant that Georgiev is now in a position to pick projects, and he is currently working on no less than five.
Two of the projects are his own productions: Homo ex Machina, which he says is on a standby due to the pandemic and that its future is uncertain, and the other is Planet Sheep, a co-production with Heidefilm, Arte and NDR that he calls "an interesting prime-time social anthropological documentary told through the story of sheep." He expects it to be finished very soon.
As an editor, in addition to his own films, Georgiev spent the 2010s working on such titles as Ognjen Sviličić's 2014 Venice Horizons winner These Are the Rules or Damjan Kozole's Half-Sister, which world-premiered at Karlovy Vary 2019, the same year Honeyland was released. Last year he edited in Shanghai the ARTeFACT Entertainment production Season of Hell about Wuhan with double Oscar winner Malcolm Clarke, and Rashomon Hong Kong about Hong Kong protests.
"I was a bit bold and I infused a bit of a different energy into the crew," he says. "Both films are somewhat controversial, I was inspired by this system, it provoked me very much to get involved deeper into this Chinese production. I remembered how it was to make films in Yugoslavia in the past, especially documentaries, how to objectively present things without directly showing the issues. I found it very attractive and for me this was one of the main things why I was excited to work on them - especially that Wuhan was the most important topic of 2020."
At the moment, he is still in the editing process with Trough the Smoke about fires in the Amazon, a big US production by Zak Kilberg (Buena Vista Social Club), Fisher Stevens (The Cove) and Bruce Cohen (American Beauty), co-directed by three first-timers: Chelsea Greene, Rob Grobman and Antonio Melendez.
Another project he is working on is Against the Tide, an Indian documentary by director Sarvnik Kaur, about two fishermen who are trying to make a living against the backdrop of the sea affected by climate change. The project has been supported by the IDFA Bertha Fund, and besides the editing position, Georgiev is a consulting producer on it.
"I fell in love with those characters and the director and the passion that they have. If I manage to secure funding on my side, I will enter the production as a legal co-producer as well," he says.
Meanwhile, he has been invited to teach at the Shanghai Film Art Academy.
"It's a different world out there, the students are amazing," he says enthusiastically. "I have now worked with all the biggest nations - the US, India and China - and I really want to spend some time there and explore this incredible place, so in September I am taking my family and I hope to stay for at least a year."
The interview is part of series of talks with European documentary filmmakers marking 20 years of the Institute of Documentary Film in Prague.