Blerta Basholli was born in 1983 in Kosovo where she has written and directed short films and documentaries while studying and later working with local film production companies. Pursuing the desire to make films she also worked many different jobs such as administrative assistant, managing humanitarian projects, marketing… Blerta graduated in Film Directing from the Arts Academy of Prishtina and obtained an MFA in Film and TV from NYU.
Tara Karajica talks to Blerta Basholli about feminism and film and her debut feature, “Hive,” that premiered to critical acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award and the Directing Award – in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. This outstanding drama is based on the true story of a Kosovo war widow fighting against patriarchy and is screening in the Europe! Voices of Women in Film program at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. Moreover, the film was selected as the Kosovan entry for Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Blerta Basholli: Oh, wow! That was a long time ago! I watched a lot of Westerns with my father. He really likes them even today. They do not speak too much in them and the photography is beautiful – that’s what he says about Westerns. He used to paint very well and loved taking pictures with a professional camera when he was younger; although he is not an artist by profession, his work is beautiful. He stopped doing it a long time ago now, but I think this is how I fell in love with photography and composition at first and then telling stories through moving images. So, I went on to study film when I was eighteen.
How did Hive come about? I understand it is based on a true story.
B.B.: It started with a TV story that I heard about Fahrije Hoti. We went to visit her with the lead actress, Yllka Gashi, and we were impressed with her life story, but mostly by her character actually. She is a really inspiring person to meet and I am really glad we managed to put such a strong woman onscreen.
Hive is a story of self-reliance, determination, female emancipation, “girl power,” will-power, hard won rewards of resilience. Can you talk about that?
B.B.: Well, as I said, it was Fahrije Hoti’s personality that really inspired us the most. Her determination, her energy, her dreams, even in a place where it’s hard to even dream, especially if you are a woman. She told me: “I never imagined myself as a housewife. I have always wanted to work, even if my husband were here, we would’ve probably opened a business together.” But even though he has gone missing, and the entire society judged her for working, for going to town, she did it. She continued no matter what. For me, that was fascinating. She had two children to raise, she was constantly looking for her missing husband, felt pain for her loss and was probably scared of her kids’ future. Society said the worst things about her and yet she continued. She gathered all the widowed women, convinced them bit by bit to work with her and she did it. Not only did they manage to work and provide for their kids, but she said the work kept them sane, kept them from going insane from all the pain and trauma. That is a story one must tell. People should see it. She struggled with problems of all kinds and she did it. I think it was really important, almost a duty to tell this story so the women and men in Kosovo and around the world can see it and be inspired by her.
It is a portrait of a woman trying to assert independence in a place that is by design slanted against them, a world where women can’t exist alone, and they must take matters into their own hands even when they are tied by society that is dominated by patriarchy and it is dangerous (gossip, insults, physical assault) for women, especially those who manage to carve out a small ounce of independence within them. Can you comment on that?
B.B.: Besides dealing with her inner pain, she had to deal with society, and what people said when she got her driving license and started going to town and working. As you said, she took matters into her own hands and people thought they could say anything to her and about her. First of all, she did it because she had to, she had two children to raise, and secondly because she had every right to do it. It is really sad to see how women are still judged, discriminated against and violated, not only in Kosovo, but everywhere in the world. I think we still have a lot to do. Things are most likely changing for the better here and in the world, but we still have a lot of work to do.
In that sense, in this patriarchal setting and mindset, how did you work and position yourself as a female director when you were shooting this film?
B.B.: I positioned myself as someone whose duty is to tell this story in the most honest and best way I could so people can hear the voices of these women, the voice of every woman, even my own voice. I did not want to point fingers, I just wanted the audience to really feel the character, be with her and connect to her on a human level. I just wanted people to be aware and understand, not necessarily hate.
Can you talk about Fahrije? How do you see her?
B.B.: She is my heroine. There is a saying that a human is stronger than the stone. I think she is that human. She was unbreakable and she did it. She is stronger than a stone.
How did you cast her? How involved was Yllka Gashi involved in the “making” of her character? Did she work with the real Fahrije?
B.B.: I worked with Yllka Gashi on a short film in NYC while I was still studying at NYU and we had a great time working together. Yllka is one of best actresses in Kosovo and she is well-known, but when we worked together, we really connected with each other and even became friends. So, the first time I went to meet Fahrije, we went together with Yllka to meet her. And from then on, we both lived with the character even before I started writing it. So, I cast Yllka before even writing the script. I am glad she liked the script after reading it for the first time because for me Yllka Gashi was always going to be this character. Then, as the shoot approached, she met Fahrije again as well as the other women. We rehearsed, but mostly during the rehearsals, it was talking about the character; how it really feels to be in her skin rather then rehearsing the scenes. When we would go over the scenes, we rehearsed them, but mostly it was talking about how she feels at that moment. We had to really dig deep into our feelings in order to bring ourselves closer to how these women felt all the time.
For many families and villages, the war has created an inertia, loss and erasure that last today. Many Kosovan films deal with that. Is that a way of overcoming it, a way of healing and dealing with the trauma?
B.B.: I believe it is a way of dealing with the past, trauma, a way of expressing our feeling and thoughts. For me, it is also about raising and talking about certain issues.
Getting the driver’s license is an act of emancipation while the making and bottling of the ajvar is an act of rebellion for Fahrije. Can you talk about that?
B.B.: She got the wheel in her hands, literally.
Fahrije accepts her slot in society with grim determination and you choose not to focus on the emotional journey but her overcoming adversity around how she gets out of the house, gets a job, learns to drive and to support her family and how her stoic determination ends up nudging the other women in a way, making them team up with her. Can you comment on that?
B.B.: I was surrounded by strong women, starting with my grandmother, my mother, my sisters, my sister in-law who went through a lot in life and you barely saw them crying – ever. Maybe because we were never used to expressing our feelings and talking much about them, maybe because we wanted to stay strong for the children, for ourselves – I don’t know. I thought my mother was not scared of anything in life. We left Kosovo with my mother, my brother, my cousin and myself. We took a train, had to stay on the border with Macedonia, the police were everywhere. I was sixteen and I just never thought my mom was afraid. We decided to split the family so that if something happened to one half, the other half would survive, so it was us who left the house first. She made that trip with us through the war, with the police and soldiers everywhere and I just never saw her cry. She left her daughters with my father and had to protect the two of us and she was just stoic. Now that I am a mother, I am like: “What? How is it possible that she managed to not break apart?”
Then, when I met Fahrije, she told me everything she went through and she was talking as if it were someone else’s story. I don’t think she had the “luxury” to deal with her emotions. She certainly cried every morning, as she said, but she wiped her tears away and continued to work and nobody ever saw her broken and that’s what I wanted to bring to the screen. We wanted to portray her inner anxiety, her inner struggles more through her actions and symbolism, without expressing the emotions too much – just the way real Fahrije was.
Can you talk about the title?
B.B.: Hive, beehive, women hive… I think the way she gathered the women, made them talk, made them dance, laugh and cry felt like a nest, like a beehive; she was like the queen bee. And the bees represent the women, the memory of the missing husband, the inner struggles. We thought “Hive” represented the best the connection between all of them.
This is the first co-production between Kosovo, Switzerland, Northern Macedonia and Albania. How did that come about? Can you talk about this experience?
B.B.: We have worked with Albania and North Macedonia before, but with Switzerland, it was the first time they were financing a film from Kosovo, and since it happened at the script stage, we were really excited. Our producer, Yll Uka from Ikone Studio, has a great experience working with AlvaFilm from Switzerland and they really did a good job bringing Switzerland on board. Kosovo is a small country with a small budget for feature films and co-productions are crucial to making a film happen. That is why the producers are doing their best to create connections and good examples of co-productions with other states beside Albania and North Macedonia because it’s really important. The industry in Kosovo is small but growing, and co-productions are the way to grow it further.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does this inform your filmmaking?
B.B.: I don’t know if I qualify for a feminist, but I guess I am. I don’t like to categorize myself; you can call me a feminist, a human rights activist, a human being, I really don’t think about putting a name to it. I will always stand for human rights and as women’s rights are violated a lot, I will continue to use filmmaking to talk about it, and talk loud about it. A professor of mine told me that if you can do something good with your film, then use the chance to do it. And, it really made me think a lot about it. I love cinema. I love storytelling. I love expressing myself through films, but if I can raise the voice for a group of human beings – or any other being, or environment, etc. – then I will do so gladly and passionately.
What subjects interest you and that you would like to tackle in your work? What would you like audiences to come away with after watching your films?
B.B.: I like character-based dramas, mostly social realism, and yes, raising my voice.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
B.B.: This is always difficult because I always forget to mention a lot of filmmakers that I really like, but let’s try: Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Maren Ade, Susanne Bier, among others. Again, there are a lot more…
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in the film industry these past two and a half years. What is your take on the matter? How is it in Kosovo?
B.B.: Coming from a small country like Kosovo, a country in development or third world country as we are called, it was really sad to hear stories of harassment and discrimination in developed countries with big filmmaking industries. At the same time, it is so encouraging that exactly in these big industries, led by these men, who were the abusers, these women found the strength to come forward and talk, and they are together and we are all with them. Because these were very powerful people to go against. It took a lot of courage, but that is really empowering and a huge change is in front of us because these women found the strength to do it.
In Kosovo, we are talking about very low-budget films and women filmmakers have just really been very successful and there are a lot of women filmmakers. It’s not very unusual to be a woman filmmaker here, fortunately. If we end up having big budget films here, let’s see who they trust with the big money, but we won’t remain silent if it’s not by merit.
What are your next projects?
B.B.: I am working on my next script, which is based on my teenage life in 1990s Kosovo. I am also exploring ideas to work on feature films and TV in and outside Kosovo.
Photo credits: Artan Korenica.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: