In Sundance Film, a Kosovo war widow rebuilds against the odds
Blerta Basholli’s ‘Hive’, which is being screened at the prestigious Sundance film festival in the US, tells the story of a woman who loses a husband to war but rebuilds against the odds in patriarchal Kosovo.
Blerta Basholli recalls a professor at the Arts Academy in Pristina showing her class a filmstrip by candlelight in the first few chaotic years after Kosovo’s 1998-99 war, when the former Serbian province was plagued by power cuts and cutting edge technology was hard to come by.
On the streets of her hometown, what would later become the capital of Europe’s youngest state, it was a time of “energy and great positivity,” the soon to be 38-year-old told BIRN.
But, frustrated with the standard of teaching and returning home to an apartment also in darkness, Basholli remembers wondering, “What’s the point in studying film?”
Two decades later, Basholli’s film ‘Zgjoi’ (‘Hive’), is being shown on Tuesday at the prestigious US film festival Sundance, bringing to the big screen the story of a Kosovo Albanian woman fighting to rebuild her life after her husband is left missing when Serbian forces sweep through a village in western Kosovo in March 1999, leaving 241 civilians dead and dozens more unaccounted for.
Studying was worth the effort.
“It is important that her story is heard,” Basholli said. “It’s a real-life story and many women, not only in Kosovo but worldwide, can identify with her.”
‘Hive’ is based on the life of Fahrije Hoti, a Kosovo Albanian woman whose husband went missing following a massacre by Serbian forces in the village of Krushe e Madhe/Velika Krusa on March 25, 1999, the day after NATO launched airstrikes to halt a brutal Serbian counter-insurgency war.
Basholli was in New York studying for an MA when her boyfriend, a photographer, alerted her to a story he had heard about a woman from the village who had obtained a driving license “and is discriminated against by the whole district because she’s working and driving.”
Basholli recalled that no one in relatively liberal Pristina paid any attention when she got her own driving license in 2004, yet here was a woman less than 100 kilometers away facing prejudice from Kosovo’s largely conservative, patriarchal society because she “started a job to feed her children”.
“I thought it was very interesting,” Basholli told BIRN. “We [Albanians] as a nation brag about our hospitality, politeness, and solidarity.” Yet, after the war, a mother of two, her husband missing, found little support.
Basholli returned to Kosovo in 2011 and, with actress Yllka Gashi, sought out Hoti, who told them her life story “in four to five hours.”
“I was fascinated by her positivity and energy,” Basholli said. “She made it, despite all the obstacles she faced along the way”.
Kosovo filmmakers like Basholli face their own challenges.
From her candlelight studies in post-war Pristina, Basholli went to New York University and is now Culture Director at the Municipality of Pristina.
But despite Kosovo’s cultural successes, ‘Hive’ being the latest, funding remains a challenge, she said.
“Almost every feature film produced in Kosovo goes to an important international festival and often receives awards,” Basholli said. “All that attention for the country is very good because we, artists and also athletes, have put Kosovo on the map, while the state budget has not been increased enough.”
Hoti’s home was burned down during the war and she was left to take care of two young children and the elderly parents of her husband, whose remains have still to be found.
Facing discrimination as a single mother, Hoti sought to convince her neighbors – almost all of them widowed by the war – that they could earn money by selling their homemade pickles and traditional ajvar, a relish made from roasted peppers.
The company that emerged, Hoti’s Kooperativa Krusha, currently employs some 60 women from the village, selling 43 products across Kosovo and a host of other European countries including Switzerland and Germany.
In Basholli’s film, set around the time Hoti started her business in 2005-06, the lead character, played by Gashi, starts an agricultural business but faces a backlash from a patriarchal society unimpressed by her ambition.
“At first, Fahrije Hoti thought we wanted to make a documentary about her life, but with time we explained that it would be an artistic film, in which many elements would be changed,” Basholli said.
Hoti watched the result, and Basholli quoted her as saying, “I have suffered so much more but I think you summed things up very well.”
“After we meet with Fahrije Hoti, we would sit and drink coffee or tea with the other women who work there, to see their dynamics,” Basholli said of the process. “We have also read and listened to many interviews that all of them have given throughout the years.”
But, Basholli said, she tried not to meet Hoti too often, reluctant to drag up bad memories or produce a “melancholic film” from what Basholli believes is essential “a hopeful and empowering” story.