★★★★☆

At key moments in Hive, windows, mason jars and a picture frame are all broken. Marking significant flashpoints in a simmering narrative, these incidents propel the film towards its smashing of an overbearing glass ceiling. First-time writer-director Blerta Basholli’s feature is an expertly crafted, compassionate testament to the perseverance and defiance of its courageous female collective.

More than deserving of its World Cinema Grand Jury Prize win in Sundance’s annual awards, Hive is based on a true story. Led by Yllka Gashi’s captivating performance as Fahrije Hoti, the film takes place in Krusha e Madhe, the site of one of the largest massacres of the Kosovo war. Seven years have passed, but Fahrije, whose husband is one of many thousands of ‘missing men’, is still searching for answers. Dropped into the film without any establishing shot, a long take follows her as she looks through body bags at a UN/Red Cross aid station after more bodies are discovered.

Taking to her task with revulsion, but clearly not for the first time, Fahrije is ushered away. Her face numbed into a permanent frown, she is lifeless but still managing to put one foot in front of the other; the weight of not knowing, of continuing to provide for her children, of caring for her wheelchair-bound father-in-law (Cun Lajci) are almost unbearable. But Fahrije persists. Tending to her husband’s beloved beehives, the low hum of their inhabitants comes to represent the sound of her memories of him, a connection hanging by the finest of threads.

Background noise that flits in and out, but won’t ever quite go away, it’s a beautiful extended metaphor that, like others in Hive, forms a sensory connection between past and present. The honey issued from these hives is also the family’s sole source of income, and with sales not bringing in enough to make ends meet, desperate measures are needed. But completely at odds with the reality of their village’s situation, and deficit of working age men, the elders – who spend seemingly all their time sitting at a café in the sunshine – frown upon the idea of a woman’s place being anywhere but in the home.

Town hearsay gets to work and goes into overdrive when Fahrije dares to learn how to drive and travels to and from Prishtina where she plans to sell ajvar (a condiment made with red bell peppers) to earn extra money. Slowly but surely, gossip turns to practical work and other women join in her endeavours. But in a film which pivots so swiftly between good and bad, luck and hardship, where at any point the very worst news of all could arrive at the front gate, we don’t ever sit easily. Fahrije’s nightmares are filled with suffocating underwater visions and her son (Mal Noah Safqiu) is warned off from going to the nearby river alone.

The reasons for this are stark, but again, it’s an elemental connection to a brutal past that flows unceasingly into an uncertain present; a leaky tap that needs fixing, torrential rain that threatens the hives, tears that fall in the shower. The bleak and the beautiful, the worst and very best of life co-exist in Hive, but it is in Fahrije’s unerring devotion to her family, her determination to overcome all obstacles in her way that Basholli’s debut really excels.

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival takes place between the 28 January to 3 February. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63