The presence of absence

Blerta Basholli and Yllka Gashi on Kosovo Oscar submission Hive

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) with her father-in-law Haxhi (Çun Lajçi) in Blerta Bashollli’s superb Hive, this year’s Oscar entry from Kosovo
Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) with her father-in-law Haxhi (Çun Lajçi) in Blerta Bashollli’s superb Hive, this year’s Oscar entry from Kosovo Photo: Alexander Bloom

Blerta Bashollli’s superb Hive, this year’s Oscar entry from Kosovo, based on actual events, tells the story of one very strong woman, Fahrije (Yllka Gashi), who energises others to take action to continue into the future, fighting against a poisonous patriarchy alive and unwell in their village.

Getting a driver’s license, providing food for two children and a father-in-law (Haxhi, played by Çun Lajçi) in a wheelchair, attempting to move on with life after your husband had gone missing for years now since the war in Kosovo, starting a business selling the traditional Balkan red pepper condiment Ajvar, made by local widows - who could object to that?

Hive director/screenwriter Blerta Basholli with star Yllka Gashi and Anne-Katrin Titze: “We are thrilled it has been having a really good journey all around the world.”
Hive director/screenwriter Blerta Basholli with star Yllka Gashi and Anne-Katrin Titze: “We are thrilled it has been having a really good journey all around the world.”

“Congratulations to us,” says the manager of the supermarket when he tastes the delicious Ajvar and orders the first shipment. Does he know about the harassment Fahrje has to face to even get the ingredients and convince the local widows to stand up for their right to survive? There are no wasted shots (by cinematographer Alexander Bloom), the expressions on the actors’ faces pose important questions, and the music (score by Julien Painot) sets the tone. When will the world come to its senses? What needs to be done to create a planet that is a little more just and less toxic?

From Spain, Blerta Basholli and Yllka Gashi joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Hive (winner of three World Cinema Sundance Film Festival honours - Grand Jury Prize, Directing, and the Audience Award).

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi, good to see both of you together! Where are you?

Blerta Basholl and Yllka Gashi answer at the same time: We are in Valladolid in Spain. We are at Valladolid International Film Festival and we happen to be together this time, so we were like, let’s show up together!

Yllka Gashi on searching body bags: “That was very emotional for me. I was very moved and sad at the same time.”
Yllka Gashi on searching body bags: “That was very emotional for me. I was very moved and sad at the same time.” Photo: Astrit Ibrahimi

AKT: First of all congratulations on being the submission from Kosovo for the Oscars. And of course also your well-deserved Sundance Awards. You must have been thrilled.

BB: Yes, we worked so hard on the film and we put a lot of love, effort, and passion in it and when it gets recognised … Of course when you are working you are not thinking where it’s going to go. At least we didn’t, we just tried to do our best in as much as we knew how do it. It was really an award for everyone’s effort in a way. Yes, we are thrilled it has been having a really good journey all around the world.

AKT: It’s a beautiful and very important film. It is based on a true story, on a true woman. How is she, Fahrije? What is the update? How is the company [selling Ajvar, a pickled red pepper condiment]?

BB: She is a star, isn’t she? We’re really happy this film is traveling around the world, because it was her, the real character that inspired both of us. We had the theatrical premiere on Friday [October 22] in Kosovo and she invited us to her factory [in Krusha e Madhe], the new factory [KB Krusha - Koperativa Bujqesore Krusha - in translation Agricultural Cooperative Krusha] that she opened in March.

So this Sunday [October 24] we went to visit her together with the producer. And she is just an amazing person. I’m amazed each time I meet her. She’s doing great, she opened a factory, she’s employing 100 women now. She’s exporting to the US, to Switzerland, to Germany.

Lume (Adriana Matoshi) shows her jewelry to Nazmije (Kumrije Hoxha), Fahrije (Yllka Gashi), Emine (Molikë Maxhuni), Edna (Blerta Ismaili), and Mihrie (Valire Haxhijaj Zeneli)
Lume (Adriana Matoshi) shows her jewelry to Nazmije (Kumrije Hoxha), Fahrije (Yllka Gashi), Emine (Molikë Maxhuni), Edna (Blerta Ismaili), and Mihrie (Valire Haxhijaj Zeneli) Photo: Alexander Bloom

AKT: In the US it’s available now?

BB: Yeah, but it usually sells out really quickly. So I tried to buy some online to send to people, because everyone wants to try it and it really tastes good, but it’s sold out.

AKT: How do you pronounce the pepper condiment - Ajvar?

Yllka Gashi: It’s Ajvar, as if the j was y.

AKT: The beginning of the film is a fantastic scene. Your performance is so so strong. A woman goes through a barrier, looks through body bags. We don’t know the context, but we understand everything. Can you talk about this very impressive scene that sets the tone?

YG: Yes, we didn’t shoot the film in the order the scenes are in the film. That scene was shot on a very very sunny day. It was extremely hot and the people wearing the forensic costumes, they were dying from sweat. The first time we rehearsed the scene, I was aware that they were bringing bones in some of the bags, but I didn’t know exactly where the bones would be.

The first time that we rehearsed it and I saw the bones, that was very emotional for me. I was very moved and sad at the same time. That exact thing, me not knowing where the bones are and me not knowing what I’m looking for exactly, helped me to have that sadness and to feel that pain and uncertainty. It was a long shot and we did it a few times, but I love that scene. Even though it was shot on a very sunny hot day, I think it’s a beautiful one.

Blerta Basholli: “People have lost family members and just dealing with the trauma after the war. Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) is such a strong person herself and besides fighting for everything, she continuously searches for her husband.”
Blerta Basholli: “People have lost family members and just dealing with the trauma after the war. Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) is such a strong person herself and besides fighting for everything, she continuously searches for her husband.” Photo: Astrit Ibrahimi

AKT: It’s a powerful start.

BB: For me it was really important because I wanted to start with a powerful scene so that it grabs the audience from the beginning. The women from this village have gone through a lot and besides patriarchy, there’s a lot of post-war trauma. People have lost family members and just dealing with the trauma after the war. Fahrije is such a strong person herself and besides fighting for everything, she continuously searches for her husband.

I really wanted to show her strong character, because it’s hard for a person to climb up a truck to search. She is a specific person, she is that kind of personality. I really wanted the audience to feel that and be with the character from the beginning. Following her, get her vibe and personality and her strength from the very beginning.

AKT: What she has to overcome is so immense. You capture her strength. It is about survival , and the survival [of her and her family] clashes with traditions in regards to gender roles to an absurd degree. I liked very much about that opening scene that the police guard is not aggressive, he understands, but at the same time tells her to leave. The sound design is great at that moment as well. You begin with a humming, and the humming returns, always connected to the husband.

BB: I really like playing with sound. We approached this film in a very documentary style as a very realistic film, but I wanted to use some elements that all have symbolism or remind us of something. I don’t use a lot of music, but when I use music I really am specific why I’m using it. There is this traditional Albanian song, called Will the Spring Ever Come For Me, which is something I was singing the whole time. It’s a really sad song and it kind of came in my head. I was actually singing to it while I was writing the script; I was even singing it while we were doing a lot of scenes. So the whole crew started humming.

Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) making Ajvar
Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) making Ajvar Photo: Alexander Bloom

Even in the script stage, I wanted it to be like a humming as if it’s the husband coming. That’s why it’s always connective, although we don’t hear the lyrics. But for me it meant; Will the Spring ever come for me? When we were talking to Fahrije and how much she misses the husband, even before production, I asked her, do you still think that he is going to come back although 20 years have passed?

And she’s like, “I do! I sometimes think what if he comes back?” I was really shocked. How can you live with that? After twenty years still wonder what happened to him and if he’s alive. For me it was really the feeling of the presence of his absence. The absence is with them and I wanted to bring that in through humming and other elements.

AKT: You have the line in the film “Kosovo cannot be free if we don’t know the fate of our loved ones.” That is contained in the humming. Speaking of traditions and the traditional song - I loved the scenes with the manager in the supermarket. They are also very funny. His repeated line “Congratulations to us!” Is that a traditional saying or your invention for the situation?

BB: Yeah, we say that, it’s like ”Good luck to us!”

Hive opens at Film Forum in New York on November 5.
Hive opens at Film Forum in New York on November 5. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The question of gender comes up when the women are celebrating one of their first victories and one of them says that had it been the reverse, had the women gone missing, the men would have been remarried after a few months to women younger than they are. It’s well placed, because we saw how the men in the village were gossiping and worse.

BB: I’ve seen it happen the whole time, not just during the war, but especially because of the culture. If a woman dies, let’s say from a disease, everybody expects the husband to marry immediately because he needs to bring a mother to the children. And nobody judges him for getting married so fast. Sometimes he might even feel pressured to get married. But for the women it’s usually the contrary.

They expect the women to mourn all their lives and if they get married, they will be quite judged for that. It happens more in the villages than in the towns, of course it’s always different in rural areas. Especially for those women whose husbands have gone missing, it was hard, they don’t even want to talk about marriage. Some did marry after a couple of years, but very few of them did. It always had to either be somebody old or somebody who lost their wife as well and usually it’s not a marriage of love. And people are very judgmental about them getting married.

Hive poster
Hive poster

AKT: It’s an important point you bring up. Some may think, well, this doesn’t exist anymore. A film from Georgia, called Brighton 4th [directed by Levan Koguashvili, Georgia’s Oscar submission], also touches on this gender divide. The inequality is still present.

YG: Blerta said everything. It’s exactly that. What I found very sad about these women is that not only were they dealing with the consequences of war and living in uncertainty about their loved ones, at the same time they’re dealing with poverty and a lot of gossip around their beings. They never had a real chance to heal as human beings and move on with their lives.

And god forbid they ever thought about fulfilling their womanly needs. They are doing fine now as a community. We just visited them on Sunday. They are much older now, but so powerful and strong and smart and hard-working. It’s inspiring, honestly.

AKT: Thank you so much for a beautiful film and for this interview! Will you be in New York for the première on November 5?

BB: Yes, we will both be there. Thank you so much, really nice talking to you.

Coming up - Yllka Gashi and Blerta Basholli on working with bees, creating a community, and wanting something heavy in the house.

Blerta Basholli and Yllka Gashi will do in-cinema Q&As (co-presented by the Albanian Institute New York) at Film Forum in New York following the 6:50pm screenings on Friday, November 5 (opening night) and Saturday, November 6.

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