Although its delights are effortlessly tasty, the preparation of ajvar is not quite simple. The red pepper “caviar” served in Balkan countries requires the right kind of pepper which ripens only during a specific time each year; manual labor, as each pepper must be peeled by hand; and hours of cooking on a stovetop, after which sunflower oil and spices are added. The hard work pays off especially during winter, when the vibrant red paste becomes a reminder that warmth will return. The plot of Blerta Basholli’s Hive, which opens this weekend in theaters, feels very much like the making of ajvar, a delicacy that features prominently in the film.
About a decade ago the filmmaker learned of Fahrije Hote, a woman who lost her husband overnight during the war in Kosovo. Her husband was one of the thousands who went missing in the late ’90s, and two decades later she still doesn’t know what happened to him. In order to support her family, Hote began growing red peppers and making ajvar. When a few years later she decided to recruit other war widows to mass-produce the condiment and bottle honey, she became the center of criticism by men who didn’t approve of a woman doing business.
Fahrije is sternly played by Yllka Gashi, an expressive actor who conveys the pain of wanting to survive in an environment that rejects you. The film’s documentary-like approach helps un-romanticize Fahrije’s story and centers on the miracles contained in the mundane. The film premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival where it became the first film in their history to win all three main awards: Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award, and Directing Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Now it’s been selected as Kosovo’s official entry for the Best International Feature Film at next year’s Oscars. The Film Stage spoke to Basholli about her incredible year.
The Film Stage: I really wanted to talk to you about the five senses—specifically touch, smell, and taste. I don’t know how you pulled it off, but I kept smelling honey and the red peppers in the ajvar while watching the film. So how did that happen?
Blerta Basholli: Oh, that’s really interesting that you mentioned that; nobody else did. A lot of people mentioned that they feel like they’ve tasted ajvar, I guess, because of the cooking scenes. But for me, it is really that I tried to connect to the feeling rather than explaining things in the film. Because, you know, initially when we make films from Kosovo—which is a small country—not a lot of people know about our culture; they maybe know about the war and that’s it. So it’s sometimes really hard to portray something because then we end up really being descriptive in our films.
I think I did that in a lot of my shorts because I worried so much if people would understand what’s going on with the culture, the circumstances and everything. You come from a small country as well, so you know how it is for other people when you’re not from New York, for example.
In this film, I just really wanted people to connect as human to human. I really just wanted to focus on the main character, on what she’s doing, what she’s struggling with, and how she is dealing with it, rather than have to explain the location. It was also important for me to portray the feeling of senses: the wind, the earth, the water, the smell, and the taste. So that’s why I’m really happy that you mentioned it.
Of course, this is a story about a woman in a specific village in a specific country. But I really, really hope that the film will connect in basic levels as a human-to-human with the audience.
Your lead character is going through something terrible, yet when she starts her new life what she does is create sweet things for people, even people who judge her for being in business. Fahrije is definitely not a fairy-tale character, but I found this dichotomy between pain and creating sweetness to be quite beautiful. Can you talk about creating this?
I spoke to [the real Fahrije] many, many times. I was really amazed by her and she is like a fairy-tale character; she is like a superhero. But how do you make that believable on film so that she doesn’t sound like a typical superhero? I spoke to her about very small moments, like: how did you convince the women to come to you? Because it was hard. It was a post-war society, the whole society was in trauma.
It was only a few years after the war and people were really confused. I was confused. When the war came I had to run to Germany with my family, and then we came back right after. We lived in a very confusing and chaotic society. Then Fahrije explained to me how she worked with the bees. They would attack her because they felt her fear; they were stinging her the whole time. She said the widowed women were the same way: she had to really approach them slowly, with calmness to convince them to join her. If she was hard on them, they would become aggressive, like the bees.
I thought that was a really interesting comparison and that’s why I kept the bees in the film. Fahrije was also this nourishing person, like the queen bee—she was creating this food and was trying to build something around her. It wasn’t easy. Once I asked her if she cried, she said yes—there were moments when she felt she was broken in pieces. She gifted me all these moments that reminded me she was a human being. “I cried every morning, wiped my tears and went to work,” she said. Work kept them sane. They had children to raise.
And that’s why I really thought she is not just an entrepreneur; she was the psychologist, a mother, a queen bee, and a businesswoman who brought everything together and made it happen. I wondered how to combine all these storylines into a movie. It was an interesting challenge.
You’ve talked about not over-explaining anything, which made me think of how wonderful your use of silence is. Hive could very well work as a silent film—you show more than you tell. Why was silence important for you?
It was important for many reasons. As I said, we really end up explaining a lot of things when you come from a small country, and the explaining makes the audience feel even more distant. I knew people in Kosovo and Albanians in Kosovo would identify with it because we went through the war. I saw how people reacted when we showed the film in festivals, everyone would cry. Once we showed it and the real Fahrije was there, so it was very emotional.
But I hoped that the film would connect to wider audiences. I just want people to respond, because whether you’re Albanian, Costa Rican, a woman or a man, or white or black, or—I don’t know—any kind of ethnicity, color, or sexuality, we’ve been through something in our lives. We all had something happen to us that made us feel small.
When Fahrije gave me these little moments I knew I just wanted the camera to focus on the character. When I first met her she told me everything that happened to her, but she wasn’t very emotional; she was a strong woman. I knew I wanted to show that, but I also wanted to show what was going on inside her. I wanted to use the symbolism that she mentioned with the bees. Although it’s a very realistic film, in documentary style and everything, I wanted to use small elements of filmmaking and symbolism to portray her inner world rather than have that expressed with dialogue.
Fahrije didn’t talk a lot about emotions, but she was very practical in giving me information about what she went through. She made me think a lot about my relationship with my father. I was very close to him: I went to fix cars with him, we spent time together, but we didn’t talk about my emotions. I wouldn’t talk to my father about breaking up with my boyfriend, but I knew he knew what I was going through. The way we communicated with our fathers and brothers was very different than how we communicated with our mother. Those cold sentences the men used said a lot and I wanted to use that in the film, rather than to have a lot of dialogue.
I’m fascinated by your relationship with your father. How did you bond growing up?
I’m the youngest at home. I have a brother and two other sisters, and I’m the youngest, and no one is an artist. My father is a great painter; he did a lot of photography. My brother as well paints very well, but he’s a dentist, and my bigger sister paints well as well. I, my other sister, and my mom are really bad at painting. But when I went to film school, my father was really happy because, you know, the last one can be an artist. He already had doctors and engineers, so he was really happy about it because he really loves photography.
I always told my parents: did you really want another boy or was I an accident? [Laughs] Because they always treated me like the youngest brother. I fixed cars with my father because he wouldn’t call a mechanic. Instead we fixed it ourselves. So I would go on to the car with him to fix some small screws that my little hand could reach.
Growing up we also watched a lot of Western films together. My father really loved imagery, he has a professional camera and took pictures with it, he liked Westerns because he doesn’t speak English and didn’t like reading subtitles and Westerns have so little dialogue. He was like “I want to watch John Wayne ride a horse for 20 minutes,” and then 20 minutes later someone says, “Hello.”
I realized that’s what I wanted to do. We connected over our love of cinema and images. I learned composition from him—from photographs, but also from watching those films of the time. I’m really connected to my father. He helped me a lot in my short films; he was even an extra in many of them.
Thank you for sharing that. You obviously have so much respect for Fahrije that it makes me wonder how difficult it must have been to cast the actor that would do her justice. How did you know you wanted to work with Yllka?
Well, I mean, I knew immediately to be honest, and that’s a good thing about living in a small country because you know the actors. I’ve pretty much so far always known who I would like to play the main character while I’m writing. I like doing that because it’s amazing; it helps to really imagine how the scene is going to be like by the writing.
I worked with Yllka on a short film while I was in New York at NYU, and she’s a famous actress. The short film was a satirical comedy, and I’d seen her on a TV series which was a comedy as well. So this was a completely different role, but I really could see what I can do with her. She’s really talented, hard-working, and I knew how she can take directions.
So really, I even brought her with me the first time I met Fahrije; I offered her the role before even writing the script. She had taken a break from acting which led people to ask me if I was sure I wanted her for the film. And I was like,“Yes, I’m sure.” We developed the character together; she dug deep into her emotions to play Fahrije. I’m glad I went with her, there are always other options, but she was really the one.
There’s something quite touching about how the film feels like you cut a slice of someone’s life and we’re seeing it live in front of us. You feel like Fahrije and the other characters we meet keep on living after the credits.
I’m glad you felt that because even when, when we were pitching the film, I won’t say the name, but there was a lady in the commission from Bosnia, and she was like, “How is this relevant now?” Excuse me—you’ve been through a war yourself.
Maybe because of the realistic approach and documentary style—and not so much the focus on time or where it’s happening—it’s making people feel that it’s relevant. We were in Valladolid last week, and people in Spain responded to the “missing persons” part of the film. I haven’t seen the new Almodóvar but I read what it is about. People in Spain still have family members who went missing [during the dictatorship].
There is also the patriarchal society. People ask if Kosovo is like that. I will not deny that I live in a patriarchal society, but then doesn’t the whole world in a way? I was surprised when the #MeToo movement started, for example, so on many levels you can connect to a person struggling and hopefully be encouraged by the way she really dealt with everything and never gave up.
To wrap up, congratulations on Sundance and the awards you’ve received. Now the film is the official Oscar submission from Kosovo, what does all of this feel like?
Pressure? [Laughs] Besides pressure, it’s been great. It’s been an amazing year. You know, when we were working on this film, I really forbade myself to think about where it was gonna go, or is it going to make it? I really wanted Sundance for us. And I’m glad the producers respected that because we were so excited when we got accepted, because we were partly supported by public funds and it took us three years to raise the whole funding. Then the pandemic happened and we worked really hard to finish the film. I thought: if I give it my maximum, then I won’t worry where the film goes because I know I did my best.
Everybody was really passionate, even while shooting. We often cried behind the cameras during emotional scenes, so when Sundance and the awards happened we were really grateful because people from Kosovo were really thankful as well. An Oscar nomination? Of course it’s hard to get there, but we’re working on it. I’m just excited people are talking about our small country and a film about women’s empowerment. It’s been a great year.
Hive is now playing at NYC’s Film Forum and will expand. Learn more here.