Filmmaker Joshua Marston on His Albanian Drama "The Forgiveness of Blood"

Filmmaker Joshua Marston on His Albanian Drama "The Forgiveness of Blood"
Tristan Halilaj in "The Forgiveness of Blood"
(© 2011 - IFC Films)

In his much-acclaimed first film "Maria Full of Grace," director Joshua Marston told the story of a young pregnant Colombian woman who becomes a drug mule to help her impoverished family. Now, with "The Forgiveness of Blood," he shows how a blood feud threatens to tear apart an Albanian family. As the young males are forced to stay at home in fear of retribution after their father participates in a killing, the teenaged son rebels at his confinement, while his sister takes on new bread-winning responsibilities. The film opened in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, and will also be available on IFC Films's video-on-demand channel. ARTINFO France spoke with Marston about the tragic reality of blood feuds, working with young, non-professional actors, and what's wrong with the Academy's definition of what makes a foreign language film.


I know that you did research in Albania for the film. How much of the story was already developed before your trip?

I knew the skeletal outline of what the story would be. I knew the premise, and I knew that I wanted the main characters to be teenagers. I did not know the details of what would instigate the murder that would start the feud — I did not know, for example, what the family business would be — and I didn't know all the details of how things would work out over the course of the movie. But I knew that it was about this teenaged boy who was stuck inside the house and that he had a girlfriend that he was trying to sneak out to go see.

The blood feud that the film focuses on is something that feels very foreign and antiquated — the kind of thing you'd expect to read about in Norse sagas or ancient Greek literature, but not see coexisting with Facebook and cell phones. What is the attitude of people in Albania toward this phenomenon?

It is sort of a tragic reality of life; it doesn't influence everyone in Albania but everyone knows of feuds or maybe knows some friend or some family member who was in some way affected by it. And I think it's something that most people are hoping that the country is moving beyond at this point, but it's hard to be sure that Albania is putting it in its past. Partly because it's something that has existed for hundreds of years, and also more recently, for the last 45 years under Communism, the dictatorship declared firmly that they had abolished feuds and gotten beyond them and then after Communism fell, they sprang back up again. So it's fairly deeply ingrained — if not the feuds themselves, the importance of honor in Albanian culture and society is fairly deeply ingrained. But the feuds themselves are viewed as unfortunate and tragic. And yet if you tell someone that someone just killed your mother or your brother, there might be an impulse to at least have a sense that something is owed to you. Whether someone would take a gun and actually take revenge, fewer and fewer people are likely to resort to that. As the political structures get firmer in post-Communist Albanian society, people are increasingly confident in the police to investigate murders and in the state to appropriately prosecute them.

The two main characters in the film, the teenaged brother and sister, were played by non-professional actors. What were you searching for in working with ordinary people instead of trained actors?

A realism to their performances. An authenticity and a naturalness that I think sometimes comes more fluidly with people who haven't necessarily been trained in a style of acting that might be huge or theatrical or melodramatic. There was also the simple reality that there simply aren't professional teenaged actors in Albania, they don't exist, and so we didn't have much of a choice.

The brother and sister are forced to grow up a lot and take charge, and this causes a lot of tension in the family. Despite the foreign customs, there seems to also be something universal in this film, in the sense that it's a coming of age story.

Absolutely. With all my filmmaking, what I'm doing — in films like this or "Maria Full of Grace," when we're going to some foreign place and discovering a new world — is telling a story that is, on the one hand, specific and fascinating for all of how different it is from our own world, but at the same time embed in that story some deeper thematic that is more universal so that audiences in the United States or anywhere in the world can relate to the story. In this case, it's a coming of age story – it's also a story about retribution and justice, and it's also a story about a family that's trying to hold together.

I understand that the film was selected to represent Albania in the foreign language category at the Oscars, but due to Academy Awards regulations about the number of Albanian nationals working on it, it was disqualified. This seems strange since the movie is filmed entirely in Albanian.

Well, it would be too long of a name to say "the foreign language and foreign cast and crew and foreign location" Academy Award, so it's called the foreign language Academy Award, but the language that the film is shot in is not the only rule that submissions must adhere to. So the Academy wants to make sure that the film is indigenous to the country from where it's being submitted. And they do that by looking at the nationality of passports of certain key crew as well as the key cast and also the director and the producer and the writer.

And are there hard and fast rules about this?

There are rules — they're not hard and fast. And I think that's part of the difficulty. The rule is that there are three categories and in each of the categories you have to have a majority of nationals from the country. The first category is the cast, the second category is the top six crew members, and the third category is writer, director, and producer. But there are two problems. One is that that rule isn't necessarily applied equally. So for example there was Kaurismäki's film that was submitted from Finland, but it has a French cast, and I don't know about the crew, but I think it probably has a number of French crew as well.

But the other problem that I think is the real problem is the existence of the rules at all. Because it's just impossible and wishful thinking that there could ever be one set of rules that the Academy could impose that would fit all the different countries who are submitting films. Specifically, the rule that the majority of the six key crew members need to be from the country of origin will never fit Albania — at least not currently, not for the foreseeable future. None of the submissions up until now since the end of Communism would have been eligible and the submission that replaced mine wouldn't have been eligible because there are simply not cinematographers and production designers and so on and so forth in Albania. All Albanian movies, whether they're Albanian directors or American directors, rely on crew members from outside of Albania. So it's the fact that the Academy imposes this definition and this rule that they think works across the board that I think is the problem.