Sundance triple award winner HIVE is a searing drama based on the true story of Fahrije, who has battled grief and financial struggle since her husband went missing during the war in Kosovo. In hope of providing for her family, she launches a business selling hot pepper pre- serves, a controversial act of independence that scandalizes her patriarchal village. Amid doubts of her husband’s return, she struggles not only to keep her family afloat but against a hostile community who seeks to violently undermine the independence and sisterhood she is determined to gain.
Not many films nor their characters can make you feel like anything is possible in a world where all, figuratively and metaphorically, is lost. Filmmaker Blerta Basholli takes great precision and delicacy in delivering a timely story about a specific period of time and empowering women and their voices that go unheard. It's no surprise that HIVE is Kosovo's official entry for Best International Feature Film - Academy AwardsⓇ 2022.
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Blerta about tackling a true story based on a remarkable woman, and finding and capturing emotional resonance through character development.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Well, first off, beautiful film and story. I'm sure it was not a very easy thing to make, especially being such a historical and traumatic moment of time in world history. I think the presentation overall is very well done, especially for those who may not be as aware of what happened in Kosovo during that time. Knowing that the story is based on a true story, and you took some creative liberties, what was that writing process like for you? And did you have access to the real Fahrije to create her dynamics as well?
Blerta Basholli: Yes, thank you very much. I'm really glad to hear you liked the film, because we worked really hard on the project, of course, but this was very close to our hearts, because of the theme, because it's based on a true story and because the character is still alive. I really grew up as a person and as a filmmaker, and as a woman while making it. That's why even while writing was a very special process for me. First of all, because I heard the story 10 years ago, and luckily, I've met the real Fahrije together with Yllka Gashi, the main actress, and we kind of lived through the character since the very first meeting. Although I was researching, and talking to her, I tried not to go too often to meet her so that she doesn't have to go through all those memories over and over again, because of my research. I really tried to not do any harm to her because I'm making a film. But at the same time, it took a lot of digging deep into my emotions - I haven't lost anybody, luckily, during the war - but I did live through quite a long occupation time and during the regime. And even though I lived in the Capitol, we did see a lot of bombing, we were really scared and we had to leave our home and leave the country. So really going back to those memories and digging deep, how did I feel in those moments? And how would I feel if I had lost my beloved one? Not knowing where he is and searching for him, and still have to deal with a society because I'm a woman and plus have two kids to raise. I do have two kids. And it's hard to raise kids, anywhere in the world. [laughs] When you have all that burden and have to provide for, she said, ‘I had to take both roles, meaning the role of the man and the role of the wife and the mother. And plus deal with a society.’ It was even too much to deal with dramatically, even in the storyline.
I really wanted to think a lot about how what kind of elements can I use to show what I think was too much to bear for her to me. I kept saying, ‘she's my superhero.’ I wanted to make a superhero film that doesn't feel like a superhero film [laughs] because sometimes it's not even believable what she went through and how she overcame everything. So, it was really thinking about subtle moments, small symbolic elements that can take you to those kinds of moments and moments of trauma and anxiety and pain and still find the strength to move on. In a way, it was a lot of digging deep into my own emotions as well, and talking to her. At the same, we both kind of understand how to portray that without having to describe a lot.
Sadie: Yeah, it's a lot of emotional layers and you’ve definitely made it digestible, in that it's not so over the top. I like what you said about her being this superhero, because like a lot mothers, they have this super strength, and you don't want to get in their way when they're on a mission. And I appreciated the handling with her children, who are also trying to have a sense of control in this environment. But also, they need they need their mom, even though they don't want to admit it. In terms of dealing with the people itself, the community, the village life versus the city life and this running theme which is greatly said by her father-in-law, “The good or bad, whatever you do, it reflects on us.” It all distills down character choices, and she's very proactive, what was that character development like with her specifically, and making sure she grows and has an arc during this journey?
Blerta: That was the biggest question because she is such a strong person. And I think she was strong all the time. So how do you make the character grow in the film? And I had comments from the script consultants, ‘if you use that first scene as the first scene of the film, she seems very strong from the beginning.’ And so there were ideas that I should not start the film with that scene. But I've written that scene from the beginning as the first scene of the script, and I couldn't let go of it. I kind of tried in one version, how would it work, but then I was like, there's no other scene that would make me understand her character. I understand the character arc. And I understand how it works in films. But in general, I mean, of course, you have to follow a certain structure, but I function quite intuitively, rather than thinking what should happen at what moment, because if I do that, then I become very technical. I don't have a middle ground. [laughs] So, I was like, ‘No, I understand what you're saying. And I agree,’ I told her, ‘but I don't think any other scene can start this film, because we need from the beginning to understand that she is a specific person, she is a woman who could do it all. And it's not some character that I'm creating, because she is that kind of person, she could do it all.’ So, I need a strong scene, because she's been strong forever.
She once told me, ‘If my husband didn't die, I don't think I would ever remained a housewife. I never imagined myself as a housewife.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, that's so amazing to know.’ Because that tells me the kind of character she is. And that, of course, the obstacles made her stronger and made her maybe gave her an even bigger vision. But I was like, that's so cool, because even if you had the husband, you never thought of remaining a housewife. I mean, nothing wrong with being a housewife, if you choose yourself to be one, the women in the villages are usually expected to be housewives. And she said, ‘I would have probably opened a business with him.’ That was just too cool for me. And in that sense, I really did not follow a classical arc where she's weaker at the beginning and then becomes stronger. But then the same time I really wanted to play a little bit more with the emotions of whether she really wants to know more where her husband is and that's something I wanted to play with her and the grandfather and show a little bit of the weaker moments. I asked her, ‘Did you ever cry?’ because she's so strong, and I was in tears the first time I met her, and she's like, ‘Yeah, of course I cried. I cried every morning. And then I wiped my tears and went to work.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yes, of course, you cried. You're a human being, you're not a superhero.’ [laughs] That was something I really wanted to play so that she feels believable so that it doesn't I feel like I just wanted to create this Superwoman because I'm a woman myself, but I just want to portray a real person.
Sadie: It’s so great. Also, just to give a nod to another one of my favorite films from Kosovo and Kosovo filmmakers Zana from the Kastrati sisters, I saw some familiar faces and names in your movie as well. What was that casting process like and getting such great talent on screen?
Blerta: Yeah, they're my friends and I loved Zana as well. With Yllka, she is a famous actress in Kosovo. She was on a very famous TV series. So pretty much everybody knows her. She has been in theater and fiction films as well. But I only worked with her in 2010 while I was still in New York, on a short film, and although that short film was let's say a satirical comedy, I really could feel how I can cooperate with Yllka, I knew what I can do with her. So that's why from the first time I met Fahrije, I went together with Yllka. And that was amazing. She loved the story. Of course, when I wrote the script, I had to show it to her so that we are officially in business together. [laughs] But, in a way, she was cast from the beginning. So for me, it was even easier and for her, I believe as well, because she lived with the character, the same amount of time as I did. And it was easier to just talk about the process and how to portray Fahrije. And for the rest of the actors, like Adriana, who was also in Zana, I've worked with her before on short films as well. And some of the actresses I never worked with before, but I just liked them and their acting in other films. I like auditioning, because some of the new actresses that have smaller roles, I've never worked with before or never heard of them, but I just liked them. And the good thing about Kosovo is that we have really good actors and actresses.
Sadie: In terms of cinematography and the location itself is like a character in this movie, I'm interested in how you secured these locations, especially that river with truck, such great juxtaposition, and then working with your cinematographer and creating that tone and feel through the whole picture?
Blerta: Well, in terms of the camera choice, when I met Fahrije, she kind of set the tone for me in a way. Because I when I met her, I thought that, ‘OK, her story is beautiful, but her character is even more interesting.’ So, I really wanted this to be a character-based drama. And I just wanted the camera on her all of the time. I want to feel everything she feels at every moment so that I don't have to say many lines, so that I don't have to describe a lot because, as you said, not many people know a lot about Kosovo. I really wanted a documentary-style approach and the camera on her. And while I was interviewing two or three DPs, Alex [Bloom] had the same feeling that it has to be a documentary-style film. He mentioned films that were my inspiration for this film and I was like, ‘OK, you're the right one.’ [laughs] He had that feeling immediately of how this film should be shot. And that was great for me because then we were pretty much just basically technically talking on how to cover scenes because we really understood how we want to approach the film.
And in terms of location, I chose an abandoned village that’s in the hills and it has really nice backgrounds and the houses are old, and they reflect kind of a post-war situation. And the river, it was so hard to find the river, but luckily the producer found fit [laughs] the location scout could not find the river that I liked. And the producer one day just went to this place. And I was amazed. I actually wanted to shoot the whole film there but the houses look a little bit different.
Sadie: Just taking a step back, what inspired you to become a filmmaker, and what stories you hope to tell in the future?
Blerta: Oh, well, I'm talking more now, but I was not very talkative [laughs] it was an easier way for me to express myself and to talk about issues and raise discussion about issues. Also, my father had a lot of effect because he is a really good painter, and he has a lot of paintings from when he was young and he loved photography. He took a lot of pictures of us when we were kids. And I watched a lot of Westerns with him because he likes films that have more picture and less talking. [laughs] So, that was I think a way to like fall in love with the moving image. And I like telling stories, dramas, social realism dramas, mostly character-driven and potentially raise discussions about certain issues if I can and if I know how to do it.
HIVE opens in New York at Film Forum on November 5 and opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal on November 12.