Last January, filmmaker Blerta Basholli was just happy she had gotten into the Sundance Film Festival with her debut feature “Hive.” The Albanian-language film about a woman who starts her own business after the Kosovo War was an inspirational gem, but Basholli hadn’t even dared to dream of just how far they would go.
Not only did it become the first film in Sundance history to win the top three awards in the world cinema competition, now it has a strong chance of becoming Kosovo’s first Oscar contender in the best international feature category.
“Hive,” which comes to video on demand on Feb. 1 and The Criterion Channel on Feb. 9, is based on the true story of Fahrije Hoti, who during the 1998-1999 Kosovo War fled her small town of Krusha e Madhe with her young children. When she returned, her husband was missing and likely dead and she had no way of supporting her family. Bucking tradition and expectations, Hoti banded together with fellow war widows and began jarring and selling homemade ajvar, a condiment made with red peppers, to local markets.
Her business, Kooperativa Krusha, is still operating today.
Basholli came across Hoti’s story in the news years ago, around the time she was getting her MFA from New York University. She knew it should be a film and that Yllka Gashi, a well-known actor in Kosovo, should star. Basholli and Gashi met with Hoti around 2011 and it further reinforced their mission to tell her story. But it would take almost nine years to get the film off the ground and another two before it would have its Cinderella moment at Sundance.
“Before meeting her, I was a customer,” Gashi said from her home in Connecticut. “I was impressed how she came up with this idea because making ajvar is a traditional thing for Albanian women, especially women of our mother’s generation. She was so smart to use this skill, this very practical skill, and to turn it into a business. From the very first time that we sat with her and we heard her story, I just fell in love with her. She has this dignity and this grace that amazes you even though she has been through so much and went through so much pain and grief and uncertainty, she still is this gracious, strong woman that inspires you.”
Basholli and Gashi were both teenagers in Kosovo when the war broke out. They remember it well and also the difficult years leading up to it.
“Growing up in the 90s in Kosovo was not a good time to be a kid,” Gashi said.
But the experience of sharing their stories and making the film and putting themselves in their mothers shoes proved cathartic in a way.
“We lived for many years in occupation, so that was a long period of really us witnessing a lot of things,” Basholli said. “But I never knew Yllka’s story and what she had gone through and how she left Kosovo during the war and she didn’t know my history. So we both opened up to each other … It’s a way of healing as well and a way of telling a history that hopefully will not repeat itself.”
Gashi said that it was something she didn’t even know she needed.
“It opened up a new perspective, to be honest, because I think that we never collectively had a chance to heal as a society, as a nation, as people, because we were we were eager to build the country,” Gashi said. “We never took in the consequences of war and the traumas that that the war and everything before the war caused us.”
The success of “Hive” has the whole country cheering them on now too. People have even stopped Basholli on the street to thank her for making them so proud.
“People know Yllka because she’s a really well-known actress and people really love her. But to stop the film director doesn’t really happen here that much,” Basholli said, laughing.
She is part of what’s being called a New Wave of filmmaking in Kosovo. Over the past year, several other female directors have had features in festivals. “Hive” is among the 15 films that made the Oscars shortlist for best international feature, which is a first for Kosovo. They’ll find out on Feb. 8 whether or not it will be among the five films competing for the award at the Oscars on March 27.
Basholli is, she says, the skeptical one. She didn’t even think “Hive” had a chance at Sundance. But she is happy about the effect it’s having.
“It really touches me that people are so proud of it. It kind of really made people happy,” Basholli said. “It kind of gives hope to people the way Fahrije gave hope to us when we were working on the film. She never gave up.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr: www.twitter.com/ldbahr