Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

“Hive” is a quiet sort of film. The color palette is a bit subdued, the camerawork relatively plain. There’s no novel set piece or showstopping, paroxysmal performance. But just beneath those muted trappings, there is a writhing, soul-biting pathos that is most often spun by true-life stories.

“Hive” is not a story about a maybe-maybe-not widowed Kosovan beekeeper trying to break into the pepper spread industry because writer-director Blerta Basholli simply sat around till the idea percolated from the ether and onto the script of her directorial debut. “Hive” is anything but ethereal — it’s earthly, depressive and, excusing some creative liberties, it very much happened.

In 1999, a little village in southwestern Kosovo by the name of Krusha e Madhe was massacred by Serbian special police at the tail-end of the Kosovo War. Men were killed or kidnapped, leaving the village largely in the hands of women and children. One such woman is Fahrije, in “Hive” played by Yllka Gashi (“Kukuni”). At the beginning of the film, she’s rifling through body bags and burnet clothing: no luck. As one woman characterizes, Fahrije is one of the unlucky ones. Not because her husband is missing; that’s many or most of them, after all. The lucky ones are those that, having heard the worst, no longer have to “startle whenever the door knocks.”

With the local charitable organization suffering a chronic lack of funds and her apiary only trickling out the scantest dribbles of honey (she and her husband were beekeepers by trade — the movie’s called “Hive,” after all), Fahrije is forced to get down to business. To make ends meet — for herself, her family and the village, really — Fahrije has to learn how to drive to find work in the city making and selling avjar, a popular Balkan condiment.

And for this, she is decreed a whore. Repeatedly. By the café-loitering deadbeat men. By other women. By her own daughter. Because, you know, whores drive cars. Or something. Tiny villages in the Balkans don’t love an entrepreneurial woman. 

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Fahrije is the sole and principal focus of “Hive,” despite a name suggestive of community. It’s about community, for sure — about family, about leaning on one another in tough times, about female solidarity — but Fahrije is indisputably the apple of the camera’s eye. It often tracks her across a scene, focusing on her face. Gashi, the woman who plays Fahrije, channels a subdued yet compelling gravity, conveying masked pain and unyielding tenaciousness behind perpetually somber expressions. Sorrowful but by no means lachrymose — it’s a picture of stoicism and the will to persevere.  

The modest nature of the film — the unimpressed might even call it banal — belies its historicity. It’s the first film to take home all three of the preeminent prizes of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition: the Directing Award, the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Award. A win for Kosovo (the film’s motherland), a win for burgeoning directorial talent Basholli, a win for the film’s principal star Yllka Gashi and a win for Fahrije Huti and the women of Krusha e Madhe.

In a manner that mirrors its modest yet historic nature, it’s the unique admixture of the bleak and the hopeful that made “Hive” so popular at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Although the movie didn’t percolate from the ether, it’s anything but ethereal — war, loss, constrictive gender norms, these are everyday things. Not celluloid inventions — real, earthbound phenomena. A depressive reality. 

But this austere front belies that aforementioned undercurrent channeled by Gashi — just as death and loss are earthbound ordeals, so are endurance and companionship. The massacre happened 22 years ago. And just the same, a widowed beekeeper really did launch her own pepper condiment business to support her community and those she loves. 

Not everyone can be born in a land of milk and honey. “Hive” shows us how, when life gives you peppers, you make ajvar. With a few awards to boot.

Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at luskja@umich.edu.