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One woman’s war story: Hive, the real-life Sundance hit set on Kosovo’s feminist frontline | Film

On 25 March 1999, everything changed for the small Kosovan village of Krushë e Madhe when Serbian troops moved in and forced the villagers to move out. They were searched for gold and jewellery and herded towards the mosque, where the men were separated from the women. Nearly 250 men and boys were killed or disappeared in what was to become one of the worst massacres of the Kosovo war. Fahrije Hoti’s husband was among 64 whose bodies were never found.

Hoti, a handsome and composed woman with neatly cropped grey hair, recalls the terrible days that followed with a chilling clarity, as if every detail of the 15-month war between Kosovo and Serbia-Montenegro were seared into her memory. “They told us they had dug a mass grave and were going to execute us all and throw us into it. Everyone was crying and yelling,” she tells me on Zoom from her home, a short distance from where it all happened. In the confusion, she became separated from her three-year-old daughter and thought her three-month-old son was dead, after he was seized from her arms and hurled on to a concrete floor. But somehow, all three of them survived, along with her father-in-law, who was too old and frail to be taken off with the younger men.

Twelve members of her husband’s family died in the massacre, she says, and she was responsible for identifying the remains of her brother-in-law and his 16-year-old son. Now a feature film, Hive, has been made about the period after she returned to her village, and was trying to rebuild her life. The debut feature of Kosovan director Blerta Basholli, Hive was one of the sleeper hits of last year’s Sundance festival, becoming the first film to win all three main awards in the world cinema dramatic competition – the grand jury prize, the audience award, and the directing award.

“Fahrije’s story had a great impact on me,” says Basholli. “Being a woman, a mother and having gone through war myself I felt it very strongly and I thought it would speak to other people too, at a time when women all around the world are facing human rights issues in one way or another.”

Bereaved Kosovan women in a scene from Hive.
Bereaved Kosovan women in a scene from Hive. Photograph: Alexander Bloom

For all the fanfare, and the horrors of its scenario, it’s a work devoid of histrionics, building its power through attention to the make-do of life after the worst has come to pass. A half-submerged lorry lies in the local river, ominous but unexplained, as officials try to identify the dead from fragments assembled in the school sports hall. The story begins with Hoti (a stern-faced Yllka Gashi) sneaking onto a lorry to scrabble through body bags for any trace of her husband, and being repeatedly stung by the bees that provide the family’s only source of income. “Bees cannot handle pain and anger, so I had to give them up,” explains Hoti, with Basholli translating.

In desperation, she fell back on the one skill most village women were allowed to display in her deeply conservative community, which was to cook. Before long Hoti was producing jars of ajvar (pepper sauce) in her basement; but when she borrowed an old car and learned to drive, so that she could deliver them for sale in a local supermarket, she crossed a line. The women shunned her, while the men repeatedly tried to sabotage her business. Her own daughter begged her to stop because she was bringing shame on the family.

Hoti’s response was to tape up the smashed windows, mop up the mess and carry on; the film shows her slowly but surely winning the women over, while the men continue to hurl insults and stones at her from their stronghold at the local coffee shop. For all its close focus on the face of its lead actor, Gashi, the film is a moving tribute not just to one woman, but to the value of determination and resilience in all women confronted by war and entrenched patriarchal systems. The emergence of the downtrodden widows and daughters of Krushë e Madhe into a shared workspace gives them a chance to exchange their stories, compare their lives, and find a safe space to smile and to dance.

Basholli – who, like Hoti, is ethnic Albanian – was a teenager living in the Kosovan capital, Pristina, when the war broke out. Half of her family escaped through Macedonia to Germany, while the other half were forced to tough it out after the borders were closed. She was alerted to Hoti’s story by her boyfriend (now her husband) while she was in New York, studying for a film master’s. Together with Gashi and another actor – both are TV stars in Kosovo – she travelled to the village expecting to have to talk Hoti into letting them make a film of her life, but found it was the older woman who did all the talking.

Fahrije Hoti among her pepper crop.
Fahrije Hoti among her pepper crop. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

“When I asked if she still waits for her husband, she said: ‘Yes, I still wonder: what if he comes back alive?’ And I was shocked by that answer,” says Blasholli. “It must be horrible to wait for so long and still hope and still not have any answer. That is why I had to work hard with Yllka Gashi to try to understand how it must feel to be Fahrije Hoti. Above all, raising children in these circumstances. I cannot imagine how hard it must be, and she still did it all, stood up and moved on.”

Made on location in a neighbouring village, because Krushë e Madhe itself was so destroyed in the war that it had to be entirely rebuilt, the film gives a documentary-style glimpse of a society that feminism forgot, using local people as extras. Hoti’s marriage was arranged by her family, she says, but she was lucky in that her in-laws were relatively open-minded. As newlyweds, she and her mechanical engineer husband travelled to Germany so that he could work as an undocumented labourer on construction sites. She was allowed to do tailoring work at home to contribute to the household income. Some women, she points out, weren’t even permitted to go to the doctor without a chaperone.

After the war ended, the family were among the first to return to the village, driven by a determination to find Hoti’s husband and to bring the killers to justice. Hoti and her children set up home with her father-in-law, who is shown, in the film, grumbling about her business and overruling her decision to sell her husband’s bench saw. But for all their disagreements, there is a bond between them based on a shared love of the children and a refusal to accept that her husband – his son – is dead.

Hoti went to see the film with a group of local women?. What was it like to watch such painful and personal memories splashed across the screen? “To tell you the truth, I did not expect people to be so interested in my story. I thought they would dismiss it, saying ‘everybody needs to work, everybody needs to break the taboos,’” she says. “But it took me back to that time, and I feel proud that our history is now being seen by the whole world.”

From left: Hive star Yllka Gashi, Fahrije Hoti and director Blerta Basholli at the Zurich film festival last year.
From left: Hive star Yllka Gashi, Fahrije Hoti and director Blerta Basholli at the Zurich film festival last year. Photograph: Thomas Niedermüller/Getty Images for ZFF

Not everyone was so positive, however. Hoti received one text accusing her of embarrassing herself, her family and the whole village by slandering its men. “I’m older now. I have a hard time dealing with these things,” she says. “But if I had listened to what people said, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

She still lives in the village, but recently moved her business from her home to a factory, where she produces ajvar and pickles and is hoping to diversify into jams. As well as employing around 50 local women, she supports others by buying their vegetables and helping to sell their products. Her father-in-law is no longer alive, but her two children work with her.

“Above all,” says Basholli, “I hope that, besides connecting with her, people can be encouraged by her to hold on to hope – we all need hope to be able to move on. Fahrije had every reason to give up and she decided not to, and other women joined her to build their own future and the future of their children, therefore changing the mindset of the whole village.”

After such vicious hostility, how did she find it in her heart to forgive the men of the village?

“I did not forgive them,” she says, “but I worked with them, so that they can have a clear mirror of who I am, what I am doing and why I am doing it. I raised my children; I built a house for them and now my daughter is also married in the same village, so my children haven’t left their roots.”

There is still much that needs to change, she says. “Maybe 40% has changed and we need to make it 100%. But the good thing is that the children from the war have grown up. They are travelling more than we did. They’re going to university and they’re seeing things differently. It’s now almost 23 years since the war. Women are more free.” Breaking into the sort of laugh that her screen persona would never have managed, she adds: “We’re even drinking coffee in the coffee shop.”

  • Hive opens in cinemas on 18 March, with nationwide previews on International Women’s Day on 8 March. See altitude.film for more information

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