Above: Ilka Gashi stars in the Kosovar film "Hive." (Photo/Zeitgeist Films)
Movie review: "Hive," written and directed by Blerta Basholli, starring Yllka Gashi. Screening at the Magic Lantern Theatre.
Fahrije Hoti isn’t exactly a revolutionary. But the Kosovar woman did defy the traditional taboos that her ethnic Albanian culture places – or at least placed – on women, especially widows. And by doing so, she not only found a way to deal with her grief but also to make a living.
Her story is at the center of “Hive,” Blerta Basholli’s fictional take on Hoti’s experiences – and a film that scored a hat trick in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at January’s Sundance Film Festival: It won both Directing and Audience Awards, plus the festival’s Grand Jury Prize.
In real life, Hoti was one of tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians who, during the Kosovo War of 1998-1999, were forced to flee invading Serbian forces. It was only after the international community intervened that Hoti was able to return to her village, her then-3-year-old daughter and 3-month-old son in tow.
What she found was devastating. Her house had been burned down, and her husband was missing – as were many other village men. To this day, Hoti has no idea of his fate.
To provide for what was left of her family, she turned to what she knew: growing peppers. Soon she was making and selling ajvar, a red-pepper-based spread that is similar to an unsweetened jam. And by 2005, she had decided to form a cooperative with other women to sell both the ajvar and other Kosovar foodstuffs.
The business allowed Hoti and the women who joined her to make money, though the business came at a cultural cost. They all faced resentment from men who thought women, but especially widows – even worse, those presumed to be widows – had no business appearing in public.
In Basholli’s film, the Kosovar actress Yllka Gashi plays a woman named Fahrije who, like her namesake, is living in a small village. Mourning her absent husband and struggling to make ends meet both for herself and her children – a young son and resentful teenage daughter – she works at making honey from her family’s beehives (clue No. 1 to the meaning of the film’s title).
Like Hoti in real life, the movie character Fahrije gets the idea to make and sell ajvar. But she has trouble convincing any of the other women to help, so intimidated are they by the shame thrown at them by what remains of the village men – including Fahrije’s disapproving father-in-law.
Women in Fahrije’s culture are expected to be submissive. Women like Fahrije herself are expected to wait, patiently one assumes, and not presume to assume a man’s role. A simple decision to sell her husband’s table saw, for example, is seen as shocking and exposes her both to gossip and, as time goes on, actual harassment.
At every step, Fahrije faces obstacles. In one instance she has to fight off unwanted sexual advances. In another, bottles of her freshly made wares get smashed. And in yet another, someone vandalizes her car. Seems even possessing a driver’s license is a sign that she lacks, well, purity.
Basholli portrays all this with a patient eye, refusing to add any melodrama to Fahrije’s struggle. Even a sequence in which she searches among a collection of full body bags looking for anything that might identify her husband is captured matter-of-factly. Basholli merely documents what Fahrije endures and how, in the end, she does manage to get other women to join in (clue No. 2 to the meaning of the film’s title).
To that end, her casting of Gashi is inspired. Gashi’s portrayal of a woman who is harsh but not hard, brittle but still capable of tenderness, bowed but not close to being beaten is a testament to her Yes, We Can perseverance.
Don’t expect Basholli to provide you with a lesson on Serbian-Kosovar history. You can pick that up by simply typing Kosovo into your favorite search engine. But as a statement – a universal statement – on how women are so often treated as chattel, or worse, Basholli has constructed something every bit as inspiring as it is powerful.