'Hive': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A quiet drama abuzz with female liberation.

A Kosovo war widow fights her patriarchal village for an independent life in this Sundance prizewinner.

More than 20 years ago, the Kosovo war with Serbia and Montenegro left 12,000 dead and more than 3,000 missing, mainly Kosovar Albanians. In Hive (Zgjoi), her first feature, writer-director Blerta Basholli is inspired by the true story of Fahrije Hoti, a single mother who, many years after her husband goes missing, is forced by economic necessity to face his loss. Instead of focusing on her emotional journey, Basholli crafts an engrossing, utterly classic tale of overcoming adversity around how she bucks the hide-bound town, gets out of the house and finds a job that will support her family.

It's clear from the start that this will be an uphill struggle, when Fahrije’s wheelchair-bound father-in-law balks at her learning to drive and selling homemade hot pepper sauce in a big-city supermarket. “You have to know your place in the family.” She counters, "I can't rely on you, father." The other war widows who meet at a local support group are deathly afraid of “gossip” and are no more encouraging. But it’s easy to guess where the film is headed, and the only question is how tough it's going to be for the heroine to get there.

It’s hard to think of a less dramatic subject to fictionalize, yet in its own quiet way, Hive builds a strong storyline around the self-reliance and determination of an uneducated country woman, played with glammed-down but riveting cool by a granite-faced Yllka Gashi. The film made a surprise awards sweep at Sundance, taking home the grand jury prize, audience award and directing award in the World Cinema Dramatic competition. This kind of spotlight is bound to grab the Kosovo/Swiss/Northern Macedonian/Albanian coprod small-screen outings in the coming months and should launch Basholli's career with a bang.

We meet Fahrije sneaking into a medical tent, where she searches body bags for the decomposed remains of her husband Agim. The anxiety of not knowing if he’s dead or alive is a torture that afflicts many women in the town. It also reinforces society’s taboo about trying to move on. A few telling scenes, like trying to sell Agim’s table saw for some much-needed cash, underscore the inertia of the place and make it clear that Fahrije is doing something out of the ordinary when she decides she'll learn to drive — even though the instructor is a man. Behind the wheel of a beaten-up car on loan from the women’s collective, she flashes a rare smile of triumph.

Her idea is to set up a working group based out of her house to stew, mince and bottle hot peppers. Apart from a refreshingly outspoken older woman, Naza (Kumrije Hoxha from The Marriage), who ingeniously has her back with a supermarket manager, the other women are hesitant. The men lounging in a café break a car window and call her names. Her teenage daughter (Kaona Sylejmani) and her younger son are against it; Grandpa, too. But Fahrije plows on, knowing the beehives built long ago by her missing husband can’t feed the family, and she herself can no longer bear being stung by bees.

In the laid-back spirit of the film, the actors are solid but convincing, notably the resilient Gashi as Fahrije and veteran actor and musician Cun Lajci in the role of the grandfather. The story takes place in Krusha, a pretty hillside town that was the site of a horrendous massacre in 1999. It is respectfully shot, without any aesthetic lingering, by DP Alex Bloom in the dark, harmonious colors of the countryside. A sparely used background melody by Julien Painot adds feeling.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Ikone Studio in association with Alva Film Production, Black Cat Production
Cast: Yllka Gashi, Cun Lajci, Kumrije Hoxha, Kaona Sylejmani, Mal Noah Safciu, Aurita Agushi, Adriana Matoshi
Director, screenwriter: Blerta Basholli
Producers: Yll Uka, Valon Bajgora, Agon Uka
Coproducers: Britta Rindelaub, Tomi Salkovski, Kristijan Burovski, Paskal Semini
Director of photography: Alex Bloom
Production designer: Vlatko Chachorovski
Costume designers: Hana Zeqa, Fjorela Mirdita
Editors: Felix Sandri, Enis Saraci
Music: Julien Painot
World sales: LevelK

84 minutes