Through its title, Kosovan director Blerta Basholli’s Hive immediately brings forth the image of a swarm of bees. The title also suggests that beekeeping and honey collection are a major focus of the film—only to be overshadowed by the cultivation of a spicy Balkan pepper spread called ajvar. Yet Hive’s title feels far from incongruous with its subject matter: After her husband, along with 240 others, is kidnapped and murdered in the town of Krusha e Madhe during Kosovo’s civil war in 1999, Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) assumes the head role in her household—to the obvious chagrin of the rest of her community. On top of this, the once lucrative honey production of her small bee colony begins to dwindle. As a result, Fahrije gradually pulls together a band of other widowed women in the town to make and sell large quantities of ajvar—finally alleviating the financial burden felt by many of these unsupported women. Though the film is a gorgeously realized dramatization of the real story of Fahrije Hoti and her eventual entrepreneurial success, it can’t help but feel detached from the actual war crimes that have still largely gone unaccounted for in the freshly independent Kosovo.
Years after the massacre committed in Krusha e Madhe—one of the worst of the Kosovo War—Fahrije pinches pennies in order to provide for her family. Despite being the most able and eager to make a living wage to support her household, antiquated gender biases initially restrict her prospects to homemaking and childrearing. Her live-in father-in-law (Çun Lajçi) insists on being the sole provider, selling meager portions of honey to any townspeople who will pay (often not even in full). Tired of constant economic insecurity, Fahrije chooses stability over social status—she earns her license, buys a used car and commutes to the Kosovo capital of Pristina for work. Immediately becoming a pariah of patriarchal society, Fahrije endures the torment and mockery of men and women alike, whether simply calling her a whore or asserting that her husband would be ashamed if he could see her actions. Realizing that this vitriol on behalf of other widowed women might be springing from a place of misplaced jealousy, Fahrije slowly recruits them to her small-scale ajvar operation. As the business expands and flourishes, Fahrije and the other widows finally begin to find reprieve for their money troubles—many of them able to candidly express their grief for the first time in the process.
Based on the origin story of Hoti’s booming business model, Hive is entrenched in the lived experiences of its main character and the countless other women who have faced similar obstacles in the aftermath of the war. Fictionalized but never sensational, Basholli’s film presents a realistic portrayal of human perseverance, poetic in its relative quiet. Void of heavy-handed examinations of violence and trauma, Hive deviates from other films that depict innocent communities shattered by the atrocities of war—it is certainly no Come and See—yet in its effort to stray from brutality, the film at times seems to needlessly meander when it could be making an explicit point. Though the efforts of Fahrije and the women she forges a business with are well worth depiction, there is a surprising lack of emphasis on the actual massacre, particularly when it comes to the victims. While Hive’s heart lies with the widows of war who must rebuild a country that ostensibly views them as second-class citizens, the dearth of names, photos and stories of the deceased is nonetheless odd. How can the film claim to confront the sinister legacy of this mass murder 22 years later if the victims are hardly ever acknowledged? Much of this can be chalked up to a cinematic portrayal of the dissonance many of these widows feel in regard to the whereabouts of their husbands, many genuinely believing their beloveds might one day return home. But in creating a narrative that singularly surveys these women’s distancing from their own grief and trauma, the film feels politically deflated.
Conversely, the main character’s struggle to communicate emotionally does eventually impart an endearing dynamism to her. Only coming to an ugly head during a confrontation with her teenage daughter, Zana (Kaona Sylejmani), Fahrije’s eagerness to sell her husband’s possessions in order to fund the business finally begins to weigh on her. This is perhaps the closest the film gets to addressing a tangible victim of the massacre—Zana truly hopes her father will return home, while her mother knows better than to dwell on overly optimistic possibilities. However, it’s only after this altercation that Fahrije finally shows the cracks in her stern façade, at one point breaking down into manic sobs that are more cathartic than crushing for the viewer to witness. In relieving her emotional constipation, Fahrije allows herself to mourn at last. Unfortunately for Hive, there is a distinct comparison to be made with Pedro Almodóvar’s forthcoming film Parallel Mothers, which also focuses on matriarchal lineage, the inherited traumas of war and widows left behind by persecuted men buried in clandestine mass graves. While Hive opts for a realism that is opaque in its ordinary depiction of life after wartime, Parallel Mothers serves as an indictment of decades of bureaucratic (and societal) indifference which followed Spain’s fascist war crimes. In comparison, Hive feels somewhat declawed and disengaged.
However, the film’s power sits squarely in its ability to translate interpersonal tensions in gentle yet evocative ways. This is often achieved through D.P. Alex Bloom having the camera linger on a scene for a few seconds after key exchanges or actions have already occurred. It is effectively disquieting to witness the awkward motions immediately following a slap in the face, an unwanted sexual advance or maneuvering a wheelchair through a narrow door frame after a tiff. For the relative flatness of nearly everyone except for Fahrije, this technique adds a layer of complexity to each otherwise ancillary character.
Though it achieves a striking visual language, Hive seems to fall short of directly grappling with the heinous events which triggered the solemn situation these women find themselves in. Far more interested in unpacking the pervasive misogynistic sentiments in Kosovo than the actual war itself, the film is pointed in its chosen observation, but appears remiss of broader political engagement. In spite of the undeniable presence of civilian combat trauma permeating the lives of the women in the film, the horrors they experienced are little more than fodder for verbal asides or supplementary title cards. Yet this approach is also steeped in Basholli’s signature style of subdued hyperrealism—as human beings, isn’t there an inherent appeal in projecting strength during periods of deep despair?
Director: Blerta Basholli
Writer: Blerta Basholli
Stars: Yllka Gashi, Çun Lajçi, Aurita Agushi, Kumrije Hoxha, Adriana Matoshi, Molikë Maxhuni, Blerta Ismaili
Release Date: November 9, 2021 (Zeitgeist Films/Kino Lorber)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.