Intl Critics Line: Kosovos Oscar Hopeful Hive

In 1999, 240 people disappeared when Serbian forces descended on the village of Krusha e Madhe in Kosovo, shot or captured the men and burned the residents out. According to the end-titles in Blerta Basholli’s triple Sundance-award winning Hive, there are still 64 missing. Hive, the International Feature Oscar submission from Kosovo, is set seven years after the massacre, when mass graves were being exhumed and remains identified. Wives did not know whether they were widows. They could not remarry. They could not take paid work. They had to go on behaving like decent wives. To be despised would be the final straw.

Fahrije Hoti (Albanian actress Yllka Gashi, giving a performance with the rocky gravitas of Mount Rushmore) has two children, an elderly father-in-law in a wheelchair (Cun Lajci) and a constant void beside her where her husband Ajem should be. The family’s only income comes from the beehives he used to tend to much greater effect; she doesn’t have the gift and keeps getting stung. The local women’s association distributes intermittent cash handouts to the putative widows, but it’s never enough. When someone offers them a car, Fahrije resolves that she will learn how to drive it. Behind the wheel, she allows herself one small smile. This car will be her lift out of poverty.

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Her next move is to persuade the other women that they can make a collective living, that they don’t have to survive from one handful of cash to the next. They all know how to make ajvar, the red-pepper sauce eaten with everything in the Balkans; they could sell it. Most of them are unconvinced or plain hostile, but Fahrije and her friend Naza go ahead anyway, taking a sample to the manager of a supermarket in Pristina who has expressed cautious interest. He samples a spoonful. “Very tasty; bless your hands!” he enthuses. They are in business.

Given that Hive is based on a true story, the end is already foretold. Anyway, the plotting is so obviously conventional — initial problem progresses towards solution, interrupted by a few bumps — that there is no doubt where it’s heading. Perhaps that is just as well. The shocks and devastation are in the details and set-pieces, which pack several severe punches. The very first scene moves from a close-up of Fahrije’s stoic face to the moment when she slips unseen into a truck full of body bags. Then she starts unzipping them. You don’t see any body parts, but that reticence only hammers home how wrong this is. When her nose wrinkles from the stench in one bag, you start to feel sick in her place.

Basholli and cinematographer Alex Bloom chose to shoot Hive as if it were a documentary about village life. There are no grand scenes of violence, no battle flashbacks, no conflagrations. Basholli’s particular gift is to convey the sheer exhaustion of sadness. These women accept adversity as their lot; anything else just takes too much energy. When someone — presumably the men who spit at them from the café, or perhaps the women opposed to the venture who call them whores — comes into Fahrije’s cellar overnight to smash the carefully potted jars of ajvar, the women simply sigh and fetch their brooms. Except for Fahrije, who steps away from the broken glass with a set look on her face. She won’t waste effort on anger, but she won’t put up with this either.

Much of the story’s moral force depends on the splendid Yllka Gashi, a presence of such forbidding strength that when her features soften even for a moment — sneaking a peek at her growing boy as he takes a shower, or gazing at the sun setting over the mountains — we are riveted. Fahrije isn’t an endearing character, but we are on her side. Watch her as she churns honeycomb, bathes her father-in-law, serves tea, fights off a rapist and persuades a bunch of her neighbors who don’t much like her to stand up for themselves; she is both an immovable object and an unstoppable force.

Right at the end, we see the real women of Krusha sitting in a circle, peeling peppers. There is a close-up of a pair of work-worn hands and then, very briefly, a freeze frame on the real Fahrije. That’s her. A good-looking woman, but God knows that face has seen a terrible lot of life.

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