The war in Kosovo ended in 1999, but for many families, its losses and erasures created conflict that lasted deep into the new century, echoing on to this day. That bleak truism provides the backdrop for Blerta Basholli’s solid and sober-minded debut film, “Hive,” which mines a real-life story of perseverance against insurmountable prejudice for the small seams of comfort and hope it can yield.
Fahrije, played with dogged, sturdy restraint by Yllka Gashi, is one of perhaps a dozen women in her small Kosovan village whose husbands went missing during the war. Now years later, his body has still never been found; the authorities’ efforts to locate the missing have been frustratingly slow. Within the heavily patriarchal hierarchy of the country’s rural society, this places these maybe-widows in an impossible situation, especially when, like Fahrije, they have a family to care for. They are expected to wait in continual expectation of their breadwinner-husbands’ return, subsisting on paltry welfare handouts, because to take a job or set up a business is looked on not only as a subversion of the natural order, but as a sign of disrespect to the husband and possibly loose morals.
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At home Fahrije cares for her father-in-law Haxhi (an excellent Çun Lajçi), a teenage daughter and a younger son, with each of whom she comes into conflict over her perceived independence and the shame such transgression brings on the family. She commits, for example, the sin of getting a driver’s license, and when someone throws a stone through the window of her car and calls her a whore, a knot of older men outside a cafe do nothing to help her. It seems they approve of the act.
It’s much worse than they think. Not only is Fahrije driving, she’s on her way back from successfully pitching a supermarket manager to stock her homemade ajvar (a roasted red-pepper condiment popular in the region), with her friend Naze (Kumrije Hoxha), an irreverent, forthright older woman who brings to the often dour mood a welcome breath of humor. This is the business they set up, first with very little support from the other women of the village, and the active opposition of the men. But soon Fahrije’s stoic example has an emboldening effect on her peers, and even begins to impress Haxhi, while the question of her husband Agim’s fate remains torturously unanswered.
“Hive” is a straightforward film, presented in DP Alex Bloom’s handheld, unromanced images, tuned to mid-toned brown and gray hues; here, even the sunshine seems unfriendly. Julien Painot’s fine score is sparingly used, and a single brief dream sequence is about all there is in terms of more individual flourish. That such an understated, formally cautious film picked up the audience, directing and grand jury prizes in a vibrant Sundance World Dramatic competition is perhaps greatly a factor of the admiration it engenders for the real Fahrije (whose homemade pickle business continues to thrive), and the seeming ease with which her story can be mapped to the beats of a familiar triumph-over-adversity narrative.
Nonetheless, there are moments, particularly in Gashi’s tenacious performance, that connect to a rawer emotional power. When Fahrije takes pleasure in an achievement, like getting that license or seeing her wares stacked for the first time on a store shelf; when she desperately searches a van full of recovered corpses for remains that could be Agim’s; and most movingly, when, after bearing the brunt of so much judgment and suspicion over her feelings for the missing man, she briefly reminisces about him with Haxhi. He was, we discover, a gentle man, who built his own beehives, whom the bees never stung and whom Fahrije believes would have supported the choices she’s made. It’s an evocative comment, prompting us to realize that part of the tragedy of a generation’s menfolk being decimated by war is that society at large loses the progress and enlightenment that the best of them would have promoted.
Basholli’s modest film plays to the strengths of the small screen, and should be able to parlay its Sundance success into wider exposure. But that it steadily adheres to familiar inspirational-true-story convention should not oversell the uplift of its conclusion. For example, in the future, Fahrije will still have to deal with the same red-pepper salesman who tried to rape her — though this time she’ll carry a heavy wrench for protection. “Hive” is about the hard-won rewards of resilience, but there’s a sting: a reminder of how dangerous patriarchal communities remain for women even, and perhaps especially, those who manage to carve out a small nook of independence within them.
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