Discussion with Blerta Basholli and director Stevan Filipović about her film Hive, which was screened at the XIV Forum for Transitional Justice in post-Yugoslav Countries, on 17 December 2021 in Belgrade
I’d like to ask Blerta how she came up with the idea to make a film that actually speaks about a woman from Kruša/Krushës, a village in which more than 100 young women were left alone with the children. In the film you see a truck that is partially submerged in the River Drim/Drin. This is actually the truck into which slain people – and there are indications that there were also living people – were loaded and then sunk into the Drim/Drin. We see this truck several times in the film. But Blerta chose to make a film about a woman who steps out of her ethnic code. She cares for her family, she cares for other women, and the message is actually one big message about how little attention there is to that life which she must start anew. After the crime, after everything, life starts because of others, for the children, for the future.
I am very happy that the film was screened here tonight. This is the first time that I’m presenting my work in Belgrade. Actually, I was in Belgrade once, 15 years ago. And during the pandemic also, I flew from Belgrade to Switzerland, because there were no flights from Pristina or Podgorica. At the time I had complications with my identity card, because no one was able to tell me whether it was possible to fly out from Belgrade, from the airport, with an identity card or with a passport. There is always that discussion – whether you are supposed to enter with an identity card or with a passport. Someone told me with an identity card. When I showed her the identity card, she said, “You want to fly with this?!” So that was an interesting situation. In any case, I flew out from there without any problems.
I first heard the story of Mrs. Fahrije on television. Actually, my husband Artan heard it and called me and said that it was a very important story. Her husband is listed as missing since the war, so she has obtained a driving license and jobs, and because of that she is exposed to prejudices. Originally, I had filmed quite a few short films with a satirical approach – I was in America at the time, and the situation seemed even slightly comical to me, to tell you the truth. So I thought that I could create a film like many other films in the Balkans, to address a serious topic with a little satire. But when I returned to Kosovo and went to meet with Mrs. Fahrije – whom I had spoken to before, but hadn’t met in person – when I met her, we started talking and that conversation with her lasted five or six hours. I was with Yllka Gashi, the actress who played Fahrije in the film, and the actor Armond Morina, and Artan. Since I was with two well-known actors, she immediately agreed for us to make a film about her. We spoke for five or six hours about what she had gone through during the war, from the moment when the forces entered and expelled the people and abducted all the men, to the moment when I met her, in 2011. That was more than ten years ago. She is a very strong woman, full of energy. Despite what happened to her, she has a certainpositivity. She doesn’t show much emotion and that is why we decided to portray her as such, and when she spoke, she spoke about everything stoically and with a firm stance. So of course I understood that this film had nothing to do with satire, but that it should be a film, a drama, about a strong woman, and from that moment on that was my task – to depict on the screen this strong woman and her strong character. And then when you hear the story and all the things that happened to her, and that person is still alive – to start with, it is a great responsibility, because she has suffered a lot in her life, during the war and after the war. Firstly, because she is an Albanian, and then because she is a woman; and in a film you have to focus on what you want to relate, for many reasons. Such a film should last an hour-and-a-half. Secondly, you have to decide what you want to relate, what it is that has left the greatest impression on you – and of course, the first draft of screenplay will be long. There was also a part that talked about the war, since it is a very interesting story how she left Kruša/Krushës and went to Rogovo/Rugove, to her family, and how she lost her children – lost her daughter, found her again. Her story is very interesting, but I also wanted to see a little bit of her husband in the film. Perhaps I thought that in that way we would feel the pain of his absence more. However, during the creation of the screenplay we had to rethink which part of her story we wanted to focus on, and what I wanted to relate. For me, it was important above all to present her strength as a woman, because she has overcome every obstacle that she has faced, and because it is, ultimately, a successful story – despite the pain, despite everything she is going through even today, in view of the fact that in addition to her husband and brothers-in-law, many others in the family, as well as the entire village, are also listed as missing. That is why I decided to focus on her story from the moment when she starts her own business, to the moment when her business is doing well, while always returning to the question in the background of how we were to tell the story about the wartime events, in a village where a great massacre took place.
Kosovo is a small country – With many problems, but in general small. Many people, for example, don’t even know where Kosovo is. The name Blerta is a very common name for Kosovo Albanians – one in every two girls of my generation is called Blerta. When I went to America, they couldn’t even pronounce my name – what is more, most of them didn’t even know about Kosovo… “Croatia? I don’t think so.” No, we don’t have a coast, we’re in the middle, underneath Croatia, and when after six months they learned that I was an Albanian from Kosovo, that there are Albanians in Kosovo – “But why are you separate?” – I’d reply to them, “History of the Balkans – let’s not go there!” So, for a filmmaker – and I believe that you understand this too – when you come from such a country, you always have to explain to them the culture and tradition – and the political background, which is the part that is most difficult to explain. It is very easy for us to understand a film from the Balkans, even when there are many political elements, because we are used to that, we have lived it in our time. I was six years old when Slobodan Milošević came to power. When they separated us – at school, Serbs over here, Albanians over there – and the 1990s started. I remember that period well, but when you talk about it to other people, they don’t understand you. Then, as a filmmaker, you have to decide whether you want to go in the direction of explaining Albanian culture or tradition and going into the details, or whether you will tell this human story so that the audience can connect as one person to another, perhaps in a way that there won’t be too many questions – In what country? Who is the enemy? Who is the victim? Who is guilty? Who is innocent? – but just to connect as much as possible to the main element, to the human character, to the fighting, singing, weeping, working, to follow the same path as the protagonist, and not to ask questions as to whether they are Albanians or Serbs, or who did this, or who did that. I think that it is much better to communicate like that, both about crimes and about pain. That way the audience gets much closer to the protagonist. And secondly, and despite what we have gone through – both I personally as well as the rest of us, regardless of ethnic affiliation – I believe that we need to narrate. Perhaps I have come to realize this more after working on this film, even more so than in my other screenplay, which is based on my personal life during the 1990s in Pristina. I see how little we have spoken – how little we have spoken about what we went through, how little we have told of our story, each of us individually, despite the fact that each of us has their own view of our own past. It is impossible for any person not to have their own point of view, because everyone perceives things differently and we have all experienced certain moments from different angles. However, we can also tell our stories without fanning hatred – without inviting even greater aggressivity, Because I think we have had enough hatred. I don’t think I would be happy if either of my two sons hated someone, and we have a responsibility when making a film, when using a medium that is so powerful. Fortunately, the film was so successful that even if we had made a film that fanned hatred, we would have only increased hatred. So, in that sense, we tried to depict reality, but without much pointing of fingers, because in that way we thought that we could fulfil our responsibility to discuss things – in the sense of discussion, in the sense of healing, in the sense of setting free all those emotions that we carry within us. Because I don’t know what the situation is in other countries, but in Kosovo we don’t talk much about what we feel. We still haven’t. Hopefully other generations will do that – our generation at least did not talk much about the war, nor about personal things – we simply didn’t talk about what we felt. Now we are slowly trying to talk. But at least it would be good to talk through the film, and not incite even more hatred.
I truly wish to express my appreciation for this film. I think that what you have said, that through films we should look at how to move on and not to spread hatred – that’s what everyone says,but very few people actually end up doing it. And in my opinion, this is one of the more revolutionary films from the region that I have seen, precisely because it states the political history, and respects the victims, but does not go along with the narrative of the victim. So you also as the author do not cater to the narrative of the victim, nor does the protagonist accept the narrative of the victim, and I think that is beautiful, because this is a film that is actually about life. To me this is a feminist manifesto of a woman who is struggling against the entire world. I was just watching to see how far she would go and what would keep her going. We see from the beginning that it is based on a true story, which makes the matter even weightier. But it doesn’t matter, even if it wasn’t – this functions absolutely perfectly as a film, and it is not stacked. My problem with most of these films of ours, is that people stack films with an eye to foreign funding, and in the end there is no local truth remaining. I have not lived in such an environment, but I feel this truth. I feel the human truth, the artistic truth, and I am really interested as to whether you have a link to such communities – a familial link, or whether it was through conversation that you arrived at how they live from day to day, and as to what is the actual essence of their lives?
You know, when we make a film we have to be honest. A good thing in our line of work is that we don’t have to talk much. We are asked for a link and a password, and have to send them, and then they will look at your film and effort. And the film cannot sustain an untruth or “stacking”, as you’ve said, because the audience is smart. Now we have smartphones, tablets, Netflix, we see much good material from around the world, so the audience won’t stand for camouflage. However, even as regards Fahrije… something I forgot to say about hatred: regardless of the fact that we should tell our stories, regardless of whether as Kosovo Albanians, or Kosovo Serbs, or Serbs from Serbia or Bosniaks from Bosnia, or wherever, we do have to tell our stories – but the main question is whether we want history to be repeated, or whether we just want to talk about it in order to ease our souls, as I said before, and perhaps cure ourselves of that not-so-good past we share. I said that I was born and raised in Pristina. I spent several years in America during my studies, not very long – but I grew up in Pristina, and fortunately I didn’t lose anyone in the war, and no one from my family is listed as missing. But from that moment when we became divided… I had a friend, a Serb, in the same building, but after ’89 we didn’t speak to each other – even though I didn’t know Serbian anyway – I don’t know how we communicated – but from that moment on, we didn’t speak to each other, because we knew that they are they, as we are we, and it wasn’t a good thing for us to speak. I lived in the Ulpiana neighbourhood, where Serbs were the majority, which means that in our entrance there were three Albanian and 12 Serb families. However, there were one or two families with whom we spoke, while we mostly didn’t speak to the others. Even though I didn’t lose anyone, I witnessed many protests, I saw a lot of harassment through the kitchen window, I often saw the building filled with demonstrators who were being chased by the police and entered our building. Our parents were at work, so we would open the door to them, and take those people into the apartment, to save them. We saw many things growing up. Perhaps I too have much hatred, I can’t deny that. When Vesna invited me to come to Belgrade, my first reaction was not “Of course, I’m coming!” I too had my doubts. Where would the film be screened, what we would do, why in Belgrade? – because this is natural. I was 16 years old when the war started and I have my own memories of the Serbian police, Serbian language, things I cannot deny, cannot erase, except that today I have an open mind and believe that everyone should live as equals, and together. Because you can’t just erase some feelings. However, I again spent a lot of time with Fahrije. First of all, we live in patriarchal societies. I still live in a patriarchal society, despite the fact that there are many female filmmakers in Kosovo, and as far as filmmaking is concerned, it’s not that you don’t encounter prejudice because you are a woman and you make films. Here and there you’ll get the comment, “It’s tough, being both a mother and making films,” but it is always expected for the woman to be a mother, always expected for the woman to know how to wash clothes, cook lunch – I still make lunch at home, every day, and we still live in a patriarchal society, but I have not experienced discrimination to the extent that Fahrije experienced it, because my mother also drove, even before the war in Kosovo. I spent a lot of time with Fahrije. I tried not to go too often, because every time we met, she couldn’t sleep all night afterwards, because she had had to return to her memories. But I essentially tried to understand what Fahrije told me, partly recalling how I myself felt during that period – because of the political situation, or as a girl, and then as a woman. I also tried not to go often so as not to hurt her; but nevertheless, I stayed with her for a long time, and we spoke about every detail. We did in fact try to be true to the reality, whether in the details, the scenes that we were showing, or in her personal drama, the absence of her missing husband. I mention this again – without the desire to point fingers at anyone, but simply to tell this human drama and perhaps say that wars don’t benefit anyone. I am certain that many of my Serb neighbours were not very happy because of what was going on in Pristina, in Kosovo, or whatever, but they had no say. As far as I know, Fahrije has been here too, and spoken to Kosovo Serbs who had someone killed or missing in Kosovo, from the war in Kosovo. So, if Fahrije can come here, despite the pain and what she experienced, and speak, then I think that each of us should come. But, in the sense of the film, I have strived to be honest, because any other way doesn’t make sense – it would be noticeable.
Thank you for your honesty, and I think that it can be felt in every shot. I really think that what you have done together (let’s talk about the artistic elements), from the director to the director of photography to the lead actress and all other actors in the film, I think that this world is so convincingly constructed that I just floated into it and trusted it completely right to the end. Why did you decide for the end to be first that scene when they are singing, dancing, and that wonderful smile of hers, and then the identification? It occurred to me that perhaps the identification could have come first, and then to end with her smile. Both variations are interesting to me, but I’m interested in why you decided what you did.
Originally, I made an effort to understand what it meant to be in Fahrije’s shoes. In many ways, I identified with her – as I said, as an Albanian, then as a woman, etc. But I made an effort to understand what it means to lose someone and not know where they are for 20 years. It must be very hard. It is hard to lose someone, in whatever way we lose them – in war, in an accident, or anywhere, but losing someone and not knowing where they are – you are always gripped by the hope that they might return. Just before we started filming, I asked Fahrije whether she still waited for her husband. I expected her to say no, because – Nataša also mentioned this – the truck that appears in the film, it is suspected that they were killed, burned, and loaded into the truck that then ended up in the River Drim/Drin. Even according to the forensic pathologists I spoke to as part of the research, when bodies are dumped into water, especially after they have been burned – they are very difficult to find. So, in that respect I thought she did not hope to find thm. But she told me, “Yes… I still sometimes say – what if my husband returns?” Well, perhaps that was a bit naïve, but I expected that at one point she would accept the reality that he is gone. So when she told me that – I was a bit shocked. How does a person live waiting for someone to return? Then, at the end of the film I wanted, above all else, to leave hope. Because I think that Farhije’s story is actually a story about hope. She succeeded despite everything. Today she has a large factory, where she works. I don’t have a factory, and I had all the right conditions for setting one up. She didn’t have any, but she achieved everything and today she also employs around a hundred women who work with her, although there are also men who work there. So, I tried to encompass all that. But, at the same time, to what extent can this film have a happy ending? As they say, “There’s no closure to their story.” A society traumatised after the war… Kosovo was overrun by chaos after the war – a feeling of happiness that we were liberated, but confusion because we suddenly had many choices, the international presence – other than the Serbs and Albanians we now had other communities, which there are more of now – as well as the pain of the past. So, there was some trauma, some emotional turmoil, we didn’t know whether we were happy or what was happening to us, especially these families – plus a patriarchal society. These women were subject to great prejudice, called all kinds of names, and I always think of that line dance – whenever they would start to dance, someone would interrupt the song. Or they would receive news, or someone would give them hope, such as “I heard that your husband or son is in Serbia or somewhere.” They would take their money. They all had a downhill and an uphill, they could never rejoice fully. That is why this film could not have that true happy ending, because it would not be real. But I tried to some extent to instil hope that despite everything she would get up and carry on. The ending was very nice, and artistically it was a very good moment to make the cut. However, I wondered how I wanted the answer to be to the question the professors taught us we took for granted – and that was, how did we want the audience to leave the screening of our films. Actually, when I ask myself that question during editing, I come to the conclusion that the audience does not want to leave with great pain – because ultimately, we also want to give at least some hope to the audience too.
The film Hive has been shortlisted for the 2022 Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.
The XIV Forum for Transitional Justice in the Post-Yugoslav Countries was organized with the financial support of the EU, CRD and RBF. The opinions of the forum participants do not necessarily reflect the views of the EU, CRD and RBF.