What to Watch

Hive: How Female Filmmakers Are Moving Kosovan Cinema Forward

Blerta Basholli's captivating debut follows a recent wave of Kosovan films exploring the female perspective in the shadow of war

Written and directed by Kosovan filmmaker Blerta Basholli, Hive tells the real-life story of Fahrije Hoti, a woman who, living with her two children and father-in-law in the aftermath of war, begins cooking ajvar – a delicious Balkan delicacy available in various regional varieties across southeastern Europe – to support her family. Fahrije’s husband was killed in the Kosovo War of 1998-99, a victim of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces and one of many thousands of innocent people who died during the conflict.

The men of Krushë e Madhe village initially shun Fahrije’s initiative, going as far as throwing rocks at her car, yet Fahrije perseveres, selling the ajvar in supermarkets throughout the cities. And as her business grows, she begins to employ other women in the village, despite their initial reluctance to do so lest they anger their husbands, fathers and brothers.

Hive is a distinctly female-led film and forms part of a small but concrete wave of female Kosovan filmmaking that’s emerging from the country and its diaspora. Aside from the obvious fact that it is directed by and about a woman, it is crucially about how women deal with suffering and loss, and how Kosovan women are able to find ways of healing, and by extension, how the young Kosovan nation can move forwards in the wake of a tragedy.

What could be played as a triumphant crowd-pleaser is instead played as something far more intimate and tense. We’re never allowed to lose sight of the fact that loss continues to dominate Fahrije's life and that of her family. It marks her shift into financial independence not as a #GirlBoss bit of two-dimensional packaging, but as an attempt to grow beyond the confines and trauma of the war. Claiming financial independence is a way of acknowledging that there is a life after war, no matter how pained, and that the long hoped-for return of the patriarch is a surefire way of living in the past – summed up by Fahrije’s attempts to sell the carpenter’s table once belonging to her husband.

The ethnic cleansing and genocides attempted by Serb forces led by Slobodan Milošević on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1998-1999 utilised specifically gendered forms of violence – the elimination of men, especially those of military age (regardless of fighting ability or fighting desire) and the systematic rape of women. Although these details are never spoken out loud in Hive, the gendered after-effects of that violence leave their marks across the film’s world, functioning as near-deafening background noise.

Much of the film focuses on Fahrije – played by Yllka Gash – and her struggle in a rural Kosovo that is still bound by strong patriarchal structures. These traditionalist structures were suppressed during the communist era in both Yugoslavia (which Kosovo and Serbia used to be part of) and neighbouring Albania, though when the Yugoslav state collapsed in the ‘90s and came to be dominated by Milošević’s criminality and nationalism, the natural defence mechanism for many communities in rural Kosovo was, for better or worse, a return to traditional ways. Safety was to be found in the family, far away from the state, led by a patriarchal figure who would decree family decisions, and where a woman’s honour and her role as the domestic homemaker was to be protected at all costs.

The context of this world, though left unspoken, shapes the culture and collective mindset that surrounds Hive, which is smart enough to include the lived reality of these factors without explicitly spelling them out to a Western audience. The film does not wallow in misery. Instead, it crucially proposes a way of moving forward that is distinctly feminine in outlook.

It's another film that arrives as part of a trend of recent female-led Kosovan cinema – with fellow feature debuts arriving from filmmakers like Norika Sefa (Looking for Venera, available on MUBI) and Luana Bajrami (The Hill Where Lionesses Roar, yet to find a UK distributor) in the past year alone. These films both deal with teenage girls coming-of-age in a still uncertain Kosovo and their claims for independence away from the immediate family. Hive deals more concretely with the past, as though functioning as a wiser, older sister.

In spite of a generation of young Kosovans whose lives are shaped by the shadow of the war – where corruption, ethnonationalism and poverty form the background to daily life, not altogether that different from much of the rest of the former Yugoslavia – the reality of a better future is only possible when folks deploy imagination and elect to move forward, without letting go of the facts of the past.

These films understand how to be liberatory without being ignorant of what came before. They are rooted in lived experience but suggest ways of reimagining one’s place in the world. Set in 2007, a year before Kosovan independence, it’s implicit in Hive that most of the female protagonists in Krushë came of age in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, an atmosphere of collapse and chaos, generating a fearful and traumatised mindset that is not easily rectified. Yet, as the difficulties of life as a Kosovan woman are made apparent in every frame, so are the tentative possibilities of the future.

Hive is now showing in UK cinemas. You can read our full review here.

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