Kosovo’s short history as a nation has been a fraught one, filled with violence and so-called “ethnic cleansing” over the last 25 years. It is still a point of contention in the Balkan States as to its legal status, with Serbia refusing to recognize its independence, and continuing to claim the territory as an autonomous region of itself.
As the country continues to develop, the need for heroes arises, and with the film, Hive, the world is exposed to its potential first. Written and directed by Blerta Basholli, this profile of a still-active role model for young women and entrepreneurs is a captivating portrayal of perseverance in the face of cultural taboos, anchored by a stellar lead performance. The film has already made history, as the first entry to sweep the top three prizes in this year’s Sundance festival’s “World Cinema” competition.
Yllka Gashi stars as Fahrije Hoti, a mother of two who is, for all intents and purposes, a war widow. Her husband – who she dreams about nightly – was rounded up with other dissidents and ethnic Albanians during the 1998 Kosovo War, and has not returned home, though his body has also not been recovered. The film deftly demonstrates Fahrije’s savvy and resourcefulness, opening with her sneaking into a visiting medical tent in hopes of finding some evidence of her husband’s remains.
This is because of the implications of the social norms of her small town. As a married woman, she is expected to remain home and care for her children, as well as her invalid father-in-law. Even though her husband is missing and presumed dead, it is considered a sin by the community for her to assume head of household duties while he is still, legally-speaking, alive. As such, all she can do to keep their family afloat is to sell homemade honey for a few euros a jar (she harvests while the father-in-law sits in the booth selling it to avoid judgment) and rely on state welfare. She shares this fate with a number of other women in the town, helping to run a volunteer support group for those who are bound by tradition to do nothing until proof of their husbands’ demises comes through. And even then, that evidence is hard to come by, as EU workers offering to perform DNA tests with the family members of the missing against what they can recover are rebuffed by those who don’t want that finality confirming their worst fears.
Fahrije herself is undeterred, however, committed to doing whatever it takes to give her children anything resembling a future. The women’s group offers to pay for driving lessons for anyone who wants a license. Fahrije is the only one unafraid of misogynistic consequences, even though on her first day out with her own car, an old man at a café throws a rock through her window and calls her a whore. This only pushes her to go further, deciding to recruit the women’s group to form a business together making honey and ajvar – a relish-like paste made from sweet peppers – and selling them at the local grocery store.
She’s beset by resistance at every turn. Many of the women are reticent at first, fearing similar ostracization by the community. Both Fahrije’s daughter and father-in-law chastise her repeatedly and accuse her of betraying her husband. The farmer who supplies her peppers tries to rape her, believing he is entitled to sex as compensation for even selling to her in the first place.
All this does is strengthen her resolve, leading by example until others come along to the right side of history. Gashi’s performance is stalwart throughout, effortlessly bouncing between doting mother and pragmatic businesswoman at the drop of a hat, her steely eyes commanding respect and dignity at all times. It would almost look like something out of a superhero movie if she weren’t doing something so mundane. She shows vulnerability, but never weakness, asserting her agency without it ever coming off as gratuitous or pandering. It’s as if she feels the weight of expectations upon her, needing to give Kosovans someone to look up to, which only aids the performance, as she knows what she’s up against playing someone who knows what she’s up against. It’s a tremendously empathetic role, and Gashi is more than up for the challenge.
The development of the women’s co-op echoes the development of Kosovo as a country, a gloriously subdued visual metaphor. Fahrije and her friends simply want to be useful and do right by their community and their lost family. They want to make their lives better and prove they can make it on their own if they have to, even though they begin not knowing the first thing about how to run a large scale operation. As the grocer tells them after they sell the first batch, the ajvar is delicious, and anyone who tastes it buys it, but there’s no label on the jar, so it’s impossible to sell on appearance. Every step they take deeper into this project, the more they’re learning about self-sufficiency. And even though some of the steps may seem obvious at first, if you’re not in the moment experiencing it, they can be daunting until you get them down.
Fahrije Hoti is a real person who made all this happen, proving that despite the pain of loss and the uncertainty of her future, there is value in choosing a path and forging it on your own, whether or not society gives you permission. It’s low-key, but I think the film comes off even more inspirational because of that fact. This isn’t some world-changing political moment, or a civil rights movement. It’s just a woman taking the first steps into a larger world because circumstances force her to either adapt or perish. The same goes for the young nation of Kosovo, diving headfirst into the global community despite only being independent for less than 15 years. It doesn’t mean there won’t be struggles, and in the end it all may fail, but to be brave enough to try is sometimes all it takes.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever tried ajvar? Have you ever considered getting into beekeeping? Let me know!