Kosovo-born director Blerta Basholli’s debut feature Hive (2021), is ultimately an expression against patriarchal repression. Based on true events, it tells the story of Fahrije Hoti (Yllka Gashi), who alongside the other women in their village in Kosovo, grieves the loss of her husband, who went missing during the Kosovo war. When the women come together to start up a business selling ajvar (roasted red pepper spread), their sudden independence is challenged by their patriarchal society.
In conversation with PopMatters, Basholli discusses the manipulation of reality and truth in film, how she felt a strong desire to protect the heroine of Hive, and the challenges that confront us in overcoming patriarchy.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
All the arts are a great way of expressing yourself. When I was younger, I wasn’t very social or expressive, and so the cinema was a way to have a conversation. You can talk with every art, but cinema was the more realistic and believable. You couldn’t touch it, but it felt touchable. It was a way of expressing myself.
It has a lot to do with falling in love with the image because my father loved painting and photography. He loved watching western films, which have more images and less talking. It was something I’d felt with photography, but cinema is a way of talking with other people.
Were there any influential films that encouraged this passion for your conversation with cinema?
It was quite broad and I’m not sure if I understood many of the films I watched back then because they were in English and the subtitles were in Serbian. Television wasn’t in Albania because it was forbidden. I was six when the Slobodan Milošević regime took over. All the news was in Serbian and in every film, whether it was in English or another language, the subtitles were in Serbian.
I remember Clint Eastwood and everyone else, but in terms of specific films, I don’t think so. It was mostly the imagery and the feeling of the shot composition, rather than a specific film.
When a film is based on a true story, it gives you a concrete base, whereas you’d think narrative fiction would present the more challenging exercise because you have to create the world. Both forms come with different challenges, and when telling a true-life story such as this, it has to be translated to the screen.
I had the same feeling as you in the beginning, before I started writing the script. I thought, ‘I’m not discovering anything, I’m just going to put this story in a film.’ Easier said than done.
It’s a big responsibility because the real person of the story inspired me. She’s my heroine and the last thing I wanted to do was harm her in any way. She has gone through too much to put in the film, and I struggled with what to take out. The first draft I wrote had some war scenes, and a little more of her remembering her husband, then her journey. Some scenes were cut at the script stage, others were cut in the editing.
I wanted to focus on the encouraging and empowering part of her story. I had to focus on what it was I wanted to say from her life, and then what I wanted the audience to leave the screening with. One person asked me why I decided to make a feature film and not a documentary about her. I hated him for saying that [laughs] because it hurt me, but he made a good point and he made me think. It’s true, I had to kill some babies and focus the story. It wasn’t as easy as I thought. I did a lot of drafts. I try to follow structure, but I write intuitively.
Documentary films are seen as representing reality and truth. That’s the opposite of narrative films that are a representation of reality. We shouldn’t forget that these two forms can express different truths that distort this oversimplification.
There are many ways you can tell the truth through documentary, although you’re basing it on real people. It depends on the subject because whatever you’re observing in a documentary, it’s still happening in front of the camera, and you’re still choosing what to show and what not to show in the editing room. In both cases, you’re manipulating.
I see narrative and documentary as being similar, especially when we’re talking about fiction films that are realistic and documentary-based. It’s a way of expressing the truth, and even if they’re not in a documentary style, it’s just a way of doing this. I hope we use documentary and fiction to start discussions and change things for the better.
Hive confronts the struggle to break patriarchy’s hold over society. Does this struggle take on different forms across cultures?
When I was trying to talk about housewives, let’s say in an interview, I was just trying to say there’s nothing wrong with being a housewife. People can be a housewife or a househusband. I had a difficult time remembering if that’s a word – “househusband” or “houseman?” I thought, ‘We don’t even know the word for that.’ I struggled because I’d never heard it before and I don’t know the word in Albanian. There is a word, but we don’t know it because we don’t use it.
It goes deep because people ask me, ‘You’re from Pristina, the capital. Is it that a bad place for women?” Fahrije [played by Yllka Gashi] changed a lot of things in her village, but I’m wondering how different it is anywhere in the world? Nobody breaks your car window, but they do other things if a woman is in a position [of power].
We still have a lot to do. [Patriarchy is] so deeply entrenched in society, and strong, that countries in different ways are still living with it. Whether we notice it or want to accept it, it’s patriarchy. Through models such as Fahrije and cinema, we can change things piece-by-piece, but we need to change how we perceive each other, and how we perceive ourselves, to begin with. Nobody makes us do certain things except through violence. It’s how you think people see you, or how you see and feel about yourself that makes you do certain things. Then maybe you have lower self-esteem and you struggle.
My son was three-years-old when he told my niece that a puzzle is not a game for girls, it’s a game for boys. I asked him where he’d learned that from. Why is a puzzle not a game for girls? Maybe he just didn’t want to give it to her, but I was disappointed because children pick it up fast and it stays with them. We have a lot to change and adjust to, even in our use of phrasing, to make things better.