One-on-one | Film

Blerta Basholli: I do not know what interested me more, her story or Fahrije herself

By - 10.02.2021

The director talks about the drama of the movie “Hive” and filmmaking in a place where culture is neglected.

“People talk, and will always talk,” says a friend to Fahrije Hoti (played by Yllka Gashi) with a mobilizing tone, in one of the scenes of the movie “Hive.” The women gathered in the room, between melancholy, the smell of red peppers and the late summer heat, but are still unaware that they will become part of one of the most well-known Kosovar ventures. 

The almost prophetic words about the inevitability of the confrontation with the “people,” that refers to an unshakable patriarchal system, describe the core of the Kosovar director Blerta Basholli’s debut feature film. 

On the morning of February 3, Kosovars woke up to the news that the movie “Hive” and Basholli have made history at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in the U.S., by receiving three awards: Grand Jury Prize, the Directing Award and the Audience Award. 

For many years, the story of Fahrije Hoti’s survival has attracted the curiosity of local and international media. After 1999, she started her life from zero in Krushë e Madhe, a village that experienced one of the largest massacres, with almost all of the men killed. With two young children, her husband on the list of missing persons, and with the house completely burnt down, she started selling pickles and ajvar in markets and fairs. 

“A woman should know her own place,” says one of the characters in the movie.

Today, a large part of the village women are employed in the well-known business — the cooperative “Krusha” — in a country where only a small percentage of women are the breadwinner for their families.

In her movie, Basholli narrates perhaps the least well-known part of Hoti’s famous life: The persistent and arduous attempts to become the head of the family in a rural place where participation in the public sphere and economy has traditionally belonged only to men.

“A woman should know her own place,” says one of the characters in the movie. Driving a car is a sufficient reason to be called a slut. 

But the terrifying control over the women’s life becomes clearer in the most joyful part of the movie. One of the women that help Fahrije peeling and grinding the peppers for ajvar, with a smile playing on her lips, says: “If we had been dead, our husbands would have married instantly — with younger ones than us,” implying that in a patriarchal society, a woman does not become liberated even when her husband dies, because decisions continue to be made by other family members.   

In the movie “Hive”, Yllka Gashi (left) plays the role of Fahrije Hoti. Still from “Hive.”

But, Hoti’s efforts can also be understood as symbolic of Kosovar filmmakers’ struggles, such as Basholli’s, to get global recognition for her art from a poor country that continuously neglects culture. 

She says that the support and successes of other Kosovar directors have been the main inspiration for her to continue: Beginning from Burbuqe Berisha as one of the first women directors, Blerta Zeqiri, as the first director to participate in Sundance with her short film “Return,” to Norika Sefa, who with her film “Looking for Venera” received the public award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam this February.

Basholli’s artistic journey began 20 years ago. She graduated in film directing from the Academy of Arts in Prishtina and then continued her master studies in film and TV at New York University. 

The movie “Hive” is a co-production between Kosovo, Switzerland, Albania, and North Macedonia. It was supported by the Kosova Cinematographic Center (KCC), Switzerland Federal Office for Culture FOC and Cineforom, North Macedonia Film Agency, and Albanian National Center of Cinematography. The main producers are Yll Uka, Valon Bajgora, and Agon Uka from Ikonë Studio. 

K2.0 talked with Basholli about her long conversations with Fahrije, the exploration of the women’s drama in Krushë e Madhe and herself, the responsibility of turning a true story into a feature film. 

K2.0: Why the title “Hive”?

Blerta Basholli: Beehive. And in a way, women’s hive, where they gather. Fahrije has the bees that her husband took care of, and she tries to raise them herself, but it does not go so well. When you are not calm, they sting you, and  even more so, when you don’t know how to work with them.

Because she has an inner struggle in her character, they continue to sting her whenever she works with them, and she has no success with the bees. More or less, this is the metaphor of the title because the women also tease her in the beginning. Their gathering is some kind of a beehive too. So, it has to do with the bees she tries to get along with until the end of the movie, but also with the women she works with. 

The communication of the resistance and persistence is noted during the whole film, and we have no doubt that Fahrije will make it in the end: She will create her own business. But at the same time, it is clear that happiness and comfort cannot easily replace suffering and oppression…

When writing the script, but also when editing the movie, we were thinking how would the audience leave this movie? In a way, they leave with a feeling of continuity, but it is a mixed feeling because their success is mixed. How can you be happy when after 20 years… she told me one day, “I still think, what if Bashkim is alive?” It is terrible not knowing for 20 days where someone is, and just imagine for 20 years. She still has a little bit of hope and that destroys you. One day, she said, “At least if I only knew where he is.” That feeling must be terrible and we tried to reflect that in the movie.

The movie’s title, “Hive,” is a metaphor for Fahrije Hoti’s inner struggle that is revealed when she works with bees. Still from “Hive.”

I couldn’t incorporate this in the movie, but it was a motive for me to keep the bees and through them to portray Fahrije’s inner state. She achieves some kind of peace with herself, that little bit of calm you can find if your husband is still missing. You want to make peace with the bees, but also with yourself in order to move forward. For this reason, the movie ends with sort of an ambiguous feeling because no matter how successful you become, the pain for a missing person always remains within you. Their absence will always be present.

If you go back in time when you were thinking about your first movie, were you looking for stories of wartime survival, stories of women’s survival, or was it the meeting with Fahrije that brought the narrative to you? Was Fahrije first, or the narrative?

I was always interested in social topics. I was together with Artan Korenica (her partner) in the U.S. and while I was finishing some college assignments, he was listening to the news from Kosovo. It was a story about Fahrije Hoti, an interview with her. I do not remember what television station broadcast it, but the story talked about how a woman in Krushë e Madhe who had started her own business was telling her story; how when she got her diving license and started to work, the whole village ostracized her.

Artan calls me and says: “Come, listen to this story. It seems very interesting for a movie.”

The story about the driving license caught my attention. When I got my driving license it was a bit sensational in Prishtina too, because they would use the horn at traffic lights, meaning “are you up for a race?” But, it seemed ridiculous to me that a woman who got a driving license and began to work could face such prejudice. And when you understand that woman is a widow and works to feed her two children, it is really painful.

Fahrije says: “I never looked sideways, only forward, and this is how I went on.”

I discussed it immediately with Artan — I don’t get the chance to mention him too often, but he was one of the main instigators, who would say to me: “You have to do this film!” Even when I procrastinated, he would say: “You have to write the script because I really believe in this idea.”

At that time, I was working with Yllka Gashi in the U.S. while Armond Morina was the producer of some of my short movies. So, we went together with Artan, Armond and Yllka to meet Fahrije.

This was 10 years ago. Those who have met her know very well what a character she is. I was fascinated by her. I do not know what interested me more: Her story or Fahrije herself. She is very motivational, a dreamer, and we talked a lot; she told me about horrendous parts of her life. We would go home after five hours; we also with our pain, but different from her that has experienced it.

We talked in detail about everything with her — war, how she got married, everything. Yllka and I needed to get the full feel of what it was like to live there. I was born and raised in Prishtina, and we also face prejudice in other situations and dimensions, but her story… from her life story one can create many movies, not just one. I have tried to explain this to her, to tell her that we will show only a little part of her life.

Yllka Gashi, the actor that portrays Fahrije Hoti in the movie “Hive,” met her 10 years ago together with the director Blerta Basholli. The photo taken from the footage of “Hive.”

I was afraid that when she would see the movie she would ask: “Where did you leave the other parts?” But at the same time, she inspired me as a character; I was fascinated by the way she gathered the women, how she had the idea to open a business considering that she has only finished primary school, without a husband and with young children around. She was lucky that her father-in-law lived abroad and supported her. He told her: “Go forward and don’t look sideways.”

Fahrije says: “I never looked sideways, only forward, and this is how I went on.”

Did Fahrije see the movie? What did she think of it?

Yes. I didn’t want to show it to her in different phases because I was afraid she wouldn’t like it. Legally, we had the right to continue with the movie even if Fahrije did not like it because we have the contract that grants us the right to the story, and we can add or remove certain parts. However, neither for the producer nor for me would it be okay to continue [the movie] if Fahrije did not agree. 

We did not screen the movie and did not agree to send it to the festival without her approval. While she was watching the movie, only I knew how long that one hour and a half seemed to me, until the movie ended.

You have to dramatize the situation for the public to see it.

And she liked it. She watched it with so much concentration, which surprised me a lot when I know how active she is.

She said, “You portrayed me exactly how I was, many moments are just as I experienced them, but I suffered much more. It’s a very good story, and I hope it will have a successful path forward for the world to see it, because it is not just my story but the story of many Kosovar women, and it is good for the world to see what we experienced.” 

How responsible do you have to be when adopting a true story, taking and using the life of a person who is alive to create an artistic movie?

It is a huge responsibility. Therefore I tried to make it clear to Fahrije, to explain to her that there will be things that did not happen to her in life, things that were much worse but we could not describe, and things that would not be included in the movie. We are used to seeing such stories in documentaries that allow you to show more. It is easier to present [such stories] with words; when you narrate with photographs, you can not manage to narrate much.

Also, you have to dramatize the situation for the public to see it. We all have different imaginations, and each of us might have different expectations depending on what movie each of us has in mind. I was afraid of this: That she could have completely different expectations from what I would do. I was scared I would disappoint her because she had already been hurt, and I did not want to hurt her with my movie.   

Her approval for me was important because I also wanted her to stay longer with us. We agreed that she would come with us to the U.S for the festival because we want her to be part of the film’s journey. She agreed, but we could not go because of the pandemic.   

At what point does creative freedom end? To what extent can one use fictional elements in relation to a person’s truth whose life story serves as the basis for the movie drama?

It depends on how you make the agreement. In the end, even though we had the agreement, we decided to go for some fictive senses in the movie because we did not want to create the space for someone to say to Fahrije, “This happened to you, and you didn’t let us know.”


"It’s a little bit like a deep dig into my life and emotions."

People have perceived her in different ways and she has faced various attacks. She has not been attacked only because she is a woman, but because of her power that posed a problem for some people. Both men and women opposed her. Hence, in the beginning there is the character of Emine, who at first does not join and opposes her.

The research, screenwriting, filming and post-production was a long process that took many years. What have you learned in this journey, about the war, Krushë e Madhe, about  the survival and oppression of women, about yourself?

I have learned a lot, I have learned from Fahrije. The process of screenwriting has helped me grow as a person, a filmmaker and as a woman because it is a long research process. It’s a little bit like a deep dig into my life and emotions. 

I have a mother who has never cried in front of us, and has always been strong. And she still is. For example, during the war while the whole city was isolated and none of my friends left their houses, me and my mother never stopped. In front of the entrance, there were always a lot of paramilitary, but she never panicked.  

We were separated from the family: I, my brother, and my cousin went with my mother, while on the other side remained my father with my two sisters, with the idea that if something happens, at least one group of us has more chances of survival. She was probably afraid, but you couldn’t see it in her face.

I was raised by a mother that never gave up. Now she is 70 years old and still never stops. This means that we were thought to suppress our feelings. During the screenwriting I needed to dig into those emotions that I hid in my life, that helped me [understand] Fahrije, because she suppressed her emotions too. This is why [in the movie] she cries only in the shower, she cries at the end and vents in front of her father-in-law. 

Fahrije and her father-in-law (played by Çun Lajçi, in the center) are connected by their joint struggle to find the body of her husband, his son. Still from “Hive.”

During the whole process, I researched how she felt, but also inside myself at specific moments, to transmit in the screenplay the inner struggle of a character that is not noticeable from the outside. 

The biggest surprise for me was the stigmatization. Naively, maybe, I thought a widowed woman in a village would find support and help, whereas they stigmatized her. It was strange and absurd to me that with all our solidarity, we see a widowed woman with two children, and we do not help her. 

I also understood how the family members who still have loved ones missing feel. 

The dialogue is minimalist. However, one seems to understand the characters’ story even in those invisible parts of their lives that are not part of the movie. Even for a foreign audience, the unarticulated context gets implied. How did you achieve this?  

I want to mention that besides the consultant Françoise Von Roy from Germany who was involved in the screenplay development, and Nicole Borgeat when we got funds in Switzerland, director Visar Morina also helped me a lot. He helped me voluntarily in both the screenplay phase and editing phase because he liked the topic.

Dialogue is a specific point of the movie, not only in the communication and language level, but also for understanding the language and the symbolism of the movie — what  you want to transmit to the public. It also depends on the movie style, because there are cases when a lot of dialogue gets used and it’s beautiful. However, there were sentences that we cut while editing with Enis Saraçi [editor]. We aimed to have a minimalist but meaningful dialogue — for the sentences to have a kind of symbolism.

For example, Fahrije talks in the past [tense] about her husband, while [her father-in-law] uses the present. Based on this, he implies that he is alive, while for her he is dead. In the end, she does not want to accept [that her husband is missing], and he says: “Maybe, we can find him.” These are the dynamics that these people go through.    

In “Hive,” there are scenes that have become commonplace in post-war Kosovo, like one of the missing persons’ family members, demanding answers in front of the government building. Still from “Hive”.

The idea was to convey more through emotions and the visual side. But even when there is dialogue, it is used carefully in order to have to have its meaning — not just in the literal sense of the word, but more symbolic.

Almost every feature film produced in Kosovo is related to a war story; if not directly, then through stories and consequences that refer to war experiences. Are these the topics that make Kosovar cinema authentic in the foreign market, and do they make it easier to search for ideas? Since a movie in itself is drama and conflict, does it mean that filmmakers in a postwar society have the movie themes in front of their eyes?

Yes, because we have a lot to narrate. When you apply to a film school they ask you a bit about your life and want to know what kind of life you want to have. And this makes you as a creator interesting. If during your whole childhood you saw protests and paramilitary maltreating people — then the war, becoming refugees, Macedonian police maltreating us at the border — you experienced things that are authentic when you show them.  

Research is important too, and it does not mean that you have to experience everything; but when you come from a country that has suffered a lot, it is easier to enter into a particular emotion. Of course, there are talented directors, and some need to have more personal experiences, while someone else does not need that. But as a country we have a lot to tell, about the war and postwar period. We have a lot of themes, but the question is: “Is there enough money?”

It takes a lot of sacrifice for every project to go abroad.

I mention this [the money] always because I try to raise the issue of the importance of investment in KCC. Until now, we have worked with enthusiasm, but enthusiasm will fade away. It is fascinating what cinematography that needs investment can do, but we do not know how long we can keep up with this trend.   

What does this say about the state, how the state treats the arts and culture sector?

It does not treat it well. I think they are not doing enough; usually I do not watch the television but in those few debates that I listen to, no one talks about how important it is to invest in culture. 

They drafted the Law on Sponsorship [in the field of culture, youth and sport] and did not invite us at all. There is the Kosovo Producers Association — I was part of it until I accepted the position [as the head of the Culture Department] in the Municipality of Prishtina — and they did not invite us, even though we stayed right at their door. It takes a lot of sacrifice for every project to go abroad. KCC is doing a good job selecting good projects — this is its job. But with the budget that it has, it can finance only one movie per year  — something that does not help the industry  — or to give it a larger budget. 

I work as an apolitical staff in the municipality because I thought that I could make changes, but I didn’t want to do anything else. I wanted to stay on set, but it is not a job you can make a living from. There are one or two movies that get shot in a year — sometimes three — but it depends whether they choose you. And with one or two movies it is very difficult to make a normal living.

Many team members began to work in TV shows, on television, and say that they won’t work in movies anymore, and you lose great team members. We have lost many costume designers, set designers, and make up artists. These are the positions that we have most problems with; and we also don’t have enough lighting designers. 

Many aspects of the team’s work behind the scenes remain invisible for the public, and Basholli says that they often are underpaid in the movies due to lack of budget. Still from “Hive.”

It’s not that we do not have talent, but when you do not have enough budget, you can not build  professional capacities, and we are not  able to do that. We can not keep the industry alive with enthusiasm because each director makes the first movie, where she or he invests all the energy, and all [the family] listens to you. In the second movie, they push you out of the house, but you also leave, because you cannot do it anymore like that.  

I am 38 years old and for 20 years — since I started college — I work without money. I got paid for this movie, but for my work I got paid very little. All this effort and you do not get paid — at least to feel like a normal person. It is terrible because many people are in difficult financial situations. 

Ten directors ask [a staff member] to come without a payment and he or she can not come for the eleventh one. They just say “goodbye” to you because they need to live, despite that they love the movie. 

There are many who have left and are not here anymore. North Macedonia is near here — for a debutant movie they receive 500,000 [Euro]. We get 140,000 for a movie in the main category. My whole budget, with KCC, Switzerland, and all others, equaled the budget for a debutant movie in North Macedonia.

I understand that KCC does not have [enough budget], but I do not know what the ministers are doing. Or, where they see culture, because we cannot wait to reform the health system, to improve education, or to develop the economy — all these aspects should happen in parallel.

After all, who raises awareness better than culture in the world about us, but also among ourselves, for each other?K

This conversation was edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Albanian.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0