“How are you going to look my son in the eye when he comes back?”
In March 1999, Krusha e Madhe became the site of one of the largest massacres during the Kosovo war when Serbian military forces forcefully separated men from their families. Over a hundred women lost their husbands and sons and it would come to be known as the Village of War Widows. In her feature debut, Kosovan director Blerta Basholli tells the real-life story of Fahrije Hoti who — after fleeing to Albania with her young children to escape the violence — returned to find her home burned down and the village destroyed. With her husband missing she was left to support her family alone and started a business along with other local women selling ajvar, a traditional condiment made from red peppers.
We first meet Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) as she searches body bags in the back of a truck for the remains of her husband and from her impassive demeanour it is evident that this grim task is one she has undertaken before. Her days are spent engaged in an endless cycle of household chores, beekeeping and caring for her family. As the sole breadwinner she is struggling to make ends meet with the modest earnings from the homemade honey they sell at the local market. The hives are a legacy from her husband and the bee stings that she examines in a nightly ritual at her bathroom mirror are visceral reminders of him. She instinctively runs to protect the hives during a rainstorm but can no longer rely on the tiny insects to survive and as the honey production dwindles she is forced to find another way forward. When the local women’s association offer driving lessons, many are hesitant fearing the wrath of their families but Fahrije signs up causing a wave of disapproval and anger amongst not only the men, but other women around her. Their husbands absence has left them vulnerable to the coercive control of their families and a driving licence is a step too far in this traditional Kosovan village where the expectation is for widows to stay at home.
Unable to secure funding for their fledgling venture, Fahrije is determined to find an alternative path and in time, the other women are inspired to join her. They pool their resources and as the fiery red ajvar simmers on their outdoor stove, they find strength as a collective and a renewed sense of hope. But the path is not easy and Fahrije is faced with opposition within the walls of her own home. The presence of her father-in-law Haxhi (Çun Lajçi) while often frustrating, in the eyes of her community offers a veneer of respectability to her household in the absence of its patriarch. Haxhi may be physically dependent on her but his judgement is sharp; every step Fahrije takes to move forward is perceived as a betrayal of his son and a threat to their family’s honour. When she implores him to take a DNA test to aid the identification process and give them much-needed closure he refuses and exasperated, she bluntly responds, “We won’t kill him by finding out.”
Her daughter Zana (Kaona Sylejmani) is no more supportive of her mother and Fahrije’s plan to sell her husband’s table saw to finance her business is met with anger. In a fit of typical teenage rebellion, she wields the gossip she’s heard about her mother against her. She’s fighting not only for her father’s legacy but the attention of her mother, who is lost in the tides of her own grief. In Fahrije’s eyes, the saw is an unwieldy, redundant object and a cruel reminder of her loss. When they visit the river, Zana asks her mother, “Why do we come here every year?” Fahrije answers, “because there’s nowhere else to go.” Haunted by visions of her husband underwater in dreams and no body to bury, she is left in limbo between two worlds. In an early scene at a meeting of the local women, they are informed that the remains of a woman’s husband and son have just been recovered and someone grimly observes, “Lucky for her, she’ll no longer startle each time the door knocks.” For Fahrije the river is an unmarked memorial and her trauma bubbles beneath the surface as she moves through life in a state of suspended grief.
The film is anchored by Gashi’s empathetic portrayal of Hoti in a performance that is nuanced and powerful in its restraint. Fahrije remains stoic in the face of malicious gossip or outright violence but her retaliation is targeted and enacted in silent rage. When Fahrije sits at the wheel of a car for the first time, her face lights up in a spontaneous smile that is shocking in its rarity and hints hopefully at the happiness — however fleeting — she may yet find.
Cinematographer Alex Bloom uses handheld camerawork to capture both the austerity of rural life and its rough-hewn beauty. Against this sober canvas, the vibrant hues of the rust-red peppers symbolise the optimism of the women’s venture and shine all the more brighter. When their first efforts are sabotaged, the broken jars and blood-red paste on the floor serve as a brutal metaphor for both the hatred towards them and the violence of their tragic past. The delicate compositions by Julien Painot complement the work of sound designer Philippe Ciompi who captures both the specificity of Fahrije’s surroundings and the shifting undercurrents of her emotional state. During moments of distress, the sound becomes muffled and claustrophobic, deftly signalling Fahrije’s disassociation from the events taking place around her. The buzzing of the bees recurs throughout, hinting at her industriousness and the gossip that surrounds her and reappears at the films conclusion in a satisfying coda.
In a confident debut, Basholli neither over-dramatises Hoti’s story nor romanticises the underlying truth. Twenty years after his disappearance the fate of her husband (like many others) remains unknown but from the ashes of destruction and collective trauma rise tender shoots of hope. What began as a cottage industry is now a bustling enterprise that employs a team of fifty women (many of them widows) and supplies to stores across Kosovo and beyond. Hive pays homage to both a real-life heroine and the quiet strength of women like her everywhere; claiming space and challenging the patriarchy one defiant act at a time.
Hive had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2021 where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic as well as the Audience and Directing Awards in the World Cinema Dramatic category. International sales of the film are managed by LevelK and the film is currently seeking distribution.
by Anjana Janardhan