A Conversation with Blerta Basholli (HIVE)
In Hive (which I just reviewed), Kosovar director Blerta Basholli makes her feature debut, telling the real-life tale of Fahrije Hoti, a widow from the village of Krusha e Madhe who lost her husband during the horrific genocide meted out against her people by neighboring Serbs in the 1990s. As she and other women struggle to move on without any confirmation of their loved ones’ deaths, they must also figure out a way to earn a living. Despite this obvious need, the remaining men — many of them fathers to the disappeared — refuse to sanction women working outside the home. This doesn’t stop Fahrije Hoti and her fellow widows, however, who devise a plan to sell ajvar, a traditional dish of pepper preserves.
Yllka Gashi plays the lead, delivering a finely tuned, and very moving, performance as a person pulled in all directions at once. The fact that it’s all based on actual events only makes it more powerful. Right before the movie’s theatrical release, I interviewed Basholli via Zoom. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. Basholli speaks excellent English, but I have also adjusted some phrases here and there to make them more idiomatic.
Hammer to Nail: Could you please explain the difference between Kosovo and Kosova and why we see both spellings?
Blerta Basholli: Well, “Kosova” is how we call the country, how the name is in Albanian. And I do prefer that name. Honestly, I don’t think names of countries should be changed, because it’s a name, and “Kosovo” was something that was created, first of all, by international people, and then it remained like that. But the name of the country is Kosova. And to me, it’s like calling me “Blerto.” So for me, it really fits that I call the country Kosova.
HtN: Kosova appears to be primarily made up of ethnic Albanians. Is that indeed the demographic of the country?
BB: Yes. The majority of the people are Albanian.
HtN: So, the language that we’re hearing in your film is Albanian. Does it differ at all from the language of actual Albania or is it basically the same thing?
BB: It’s the same nation; same language, two countries.
HtN: You used to live in Brooklyn, right? When did you leave Kosova to come to the United States?
BB: I lived in Brooklyn for four years, but that was a little bit before my studies [at NYU] and then a little bit after. But then we came back to Kosova in 2011 and I have been here ever since. I’m really excited to be back in New York for the premiere.
HtN: What brought you to the States to attend NYU? Why did you want to study film there?
BB: I had two options for film school. I wanted to go to either Poland or to New York. My boyfriend, now my husband, lived in New York. And we were really thinking whether to move either to Poland or to New York. So in Poland, I was interested in the Łódź film school, which I think is a great film school. But they had no financial aid at all for non-EU countries. But then when I checked the NYU website, it also said that they have very limited financial aid for international students; at least they had something, though. And in Poland they had nothing.
Well, my parents are currently well-off, but not well-off enough to pay for such schools like that in Poland. Of course, Poland is much cheaper than New York. But then I was like, “At least in New York, I have some chance of getting something.” So I applied, got the full tuition, and really loved the program. It is the only school to which I applied because it has really hands-on production. And I really wanted that. I really like that. So, I loved the program. I applied, got admitted, got the Dean’s Fellowship. And I was lucky enough to go through the program.
HtN: That’s excellent. When you showed up, were they still doing any work on film or had it all transitioned to digital by then?
BB: We were still doing some things on film. It was optional. Well, the first project, an MOS (shot silently) film, was obligated to be shot in 16mm. And then the second-year film was also optional, if you wanted to shoot on film or not. I chose to shoot on film because when I was doing my undergrad studies in Pristina, the conditions of studying in Pristina were much worse. I mean, we basically had no equipment and no film at all. And one of the teachers said, ‘We’re going to explain film stock to you, but I don’t think you’re ever going to shoot on film.” And that made me really sad. And that was back in 2001. I was like, “Why am I studying if I’m never going to shoot this, if I’m never going to shoot on film?”
So it stayed with me for a very long time. So in the second year I really had to shoot another film on film just to have that in my…not that I think that shooting on film makes your film better. It does, in a way, but now we all have the means to… I mean, people do films on iPhones or any other phone and it’s still a good film. So I think we should focus on stories now, and acting, rather than the technology.
HtN: How did you first learn about your subject?
BB: Well, it was on TV and I was still in Brooklyn at that time trying to finish homework, actually. And then my husband called me and he was like, ‘Oh, you want to listen to this story of this woman.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about her.” He was like, “She’s talking about getting a driver’s license and people giving her a hard time about it and gossiping.” And I said, “Okay, let’s listen to her.” So that’s how I really heard about her. And at that time I was working with Yllka Gashi on a short film. My second-year film at NYU was with Yllka. I told her about the story. And when we came back to Kosova, we went to meet Fahrije in person. And when we met her in person, it gave us a really different kind of feeling of her as a person, as an individual. So then that’s how we really then decided to focus the story on the actual character and tell her story.
HtN: How much would you say happened as we see it versus you taking dramatic liberties or giving special emphasis to certain things?
BB: I’m not sure, but maybe 95%, if I may say. It’s not that I ever calculated how much, but it’s pretty much based on the real story. There’s a lot of things that I had to take out, in fact, because she has gone through a lot in her life during the war, and after the war, that a lot of things felt to me that the film cannot handle. So I really had to take those out. And then maybe the story with the bees, it’s a little bit more symbolic and more stressed than what she dealt with in real life. And of course, the scene in the water and small elements that I wanted to use as symbolism. But in general, it’s pretty much the way it happened.
HtN: Could you explain what goes into ajvar? It has pepper and eggplant and…anything else? It looks kind of yummy, but I’ve never tried it.
BB: I don’t know the recipe, to be honest. I think you can make it with eggplant, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they make it with pepper only, and it’s basically oil, salt, and some sugar, if I’m not wrong. But it is very yummy and Fahrije really makes a really good ajvar. My mom used to make it, as well, and a lot of people make it at home. It’s like a winter food. It’s a bread spread. And when you close the jar, it lasts a little bit longer.
HtN: Your film deals so much with the misogyny that the women face, both in their families and outside of their families, although we do see Fahrije’s father-in-law sort of coming around, maybe because she brings in the money. Why so much resistance, do you think, to women working? I mean, somebody has to earn money for the family, right? It’s not as if they have a choice, so that’s what I find interesting. It’s not as if these are women rejecting the patriarchy and saying, “I’m going to go work, so screw you.” They have to work. And so I’m just curious why, despite that fact, you think there’s so much resistance.
BB: Well, first of all, I was surprised myself. I was born and raised in Pristina. So I come from the same country and I do have connection to the village because of my father, so I was not very distant. Still, I was surprised. As a nation, we’ve gone through a lot. First, it was not just the war but the many years of occupation. And really a lot of people had to leave the country to find a better place to live, and then send money back. So we really helped each other. We really are known for hospitality. And then it comes to this situation where these women have lost their husbands during the war. And some of them, even more family members, not just their husband. And as you said, they needed to work.
I mean, it’s not primarily that they are choosing to stand up for their liberty. They did after they found obstacles, but it wasn’t the initial idea. But I think it is because it’s a patriarchal society. It is because in these kinds of villages, really, they expect women to be housewives. And I’m not saying that that’s the wrong thing, if you choose to do that. People should be housewives or househusbands, if that’s a word? You see, we don’t even know the word for men who do that, but still, if people choose to do that, then it’s fine. But if you think that because I’m a woman I should stay at home, then that is completely wrong. And I think that that’s what they expected from these women.
So even for me, it was very hard. I mean, it was part of the patriarchy. It was part of stereotyping, of course, and postwar trauma as well. But at the same time, these women, it was not their fault. These women really had to survive, and as Fahrije puts it, “We had to work. We had children to raise and we were going crazy.” She was like, “We had to stay sane because if we had gone crazy, our children would’ve gone in a bad direction. And then it would’ve been too late for us to come back and think about them. We had to stay sane because we were raising children and we had to be there for them, no matter the pain that we were feeling, for the people we lost.” And I don’t know how she found that strength, because you have the pain, and losing somebody is hard anyhow, but losing somebody and not knowing what happened to them, not knowing where they are, having to look for them the whole time…
Even 20 years after the war, she’s still looking for her husband. And many people are looking for their lost ones and still having to raise children and deal with society. I mean, all that for a film, it’s too much, to be honest. Even for me, it was too much to combine it and make it feel believable and natural and real. So it doesn’t feel like I’m putting things in to make an interesting film out of it, but she and all the other women had to go through that. And it’s really amazing that they decided to move on as much as you can move on in a situation like that.
HtN: Yllka Gashi is a trained actress and you cast well, because based on everything you just said, her face itself is just such a strong face. In fact, I was so surprised at the end to see her smiling, because she’s just always serious, and for good reason, throughout the film. It’s nice to see her able to relax at one point. And I know that her father-in-law is also a trained actor, and I believe a musician, but in terms of some of the other roles, did you cast from the village at all, or is everyone a trained actor?
BB: Basically everyone is a trained actor, beside the extras, of course, or from the village. Yllka is a really well-known actress in Kosova. I’ve known her for a very long time. She was on TV, on theater, and in other feature films. But then working with her in a short film, I kind of also knew what I can do with her, and how it is to work with her. And the first time, as I said, we went to meet Fahrije, we went together. So it was really good because even before writing the script, I cast the main actress. And of course I still had to show her the scripts so that we could talk more concretely about it. But in a way it was really good that we both lived with the character.
But it was more of really understanding because the real character is such a strong person. She doesn’t give you much emotion, but she says a lot and she did a lot. And she also told us that there were moments when she broke down. But then there were moments when she tried to make the other women happy and not let them cry the whole time. So all these things, we really tried to combine with a character without having to say too much, rather than have the audience feel with her, and be with her rather than trying to read the lines or see her going through emotions. But with other actresses, I also worked with some of them. I really tried to create an ensemble that would work together well. And I think everybody really took it seriously and everybody worked as a team and that’s why it kind of came together.
HtN: What are relations between Kosova and Serbia like now? I know that not every country in the UN has recognized Kosova as an independent nation, but most have.
BB: I think Kosova is still in dialogue with Serbia about recognition. They still do not accept Kosova. There were some agreements before for our cars to cross over the border into Serbia, changing plates. And it was meant to be the same way for them, but never respected. And when our prime minister, who got elected last March, asked for them to respect the agreement the same way we are respecting it, they got really mad and people started coming to the border and burning things and things like that. So I think some politicians want to keep the topic hot. I guess it fits because that gives them votes to talk about Kosova and how we’re going to protect Kosova.
So I don’t think we’re on good terms yet. And I think it’s a pity because I’m sure a lot of Serbs really just want to move on and have a peaceful world and not even have to think about what happened. Of course, they still need to accept what happened in Kosova—the genocide—and apologize for it. And there’s still a lot of people missing. And those mass graves need to be found. I haven’t done the research, but I’m sure that people really, if you ask the people who are not involved in politics, would want a different kind of relationship. But I think we’re still on bad terms until these dialogues are finished and hopefully we get to recognize each other’s countries and just move on.
HtN: Well, thank you for talking to me and congratulations on the film.
BB: Thank you!
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
Zeitgeist Films; Blerta Basholli interview; Hive movie