Joshua Marston, the 43-year-old American director of Maria Full of Grace, and now the Albanian feature The Forgiveness of Blood, came by his international résumé honestly, working as a journalist for Life and ABC News during the Gulf War, and teaching English in Prague before returning to school to study (first international relations, and then film).
Maria Full of Grace (2004), the story of a pregnant teenaged Colombian girl who becomes a drug mule, earned an Academy Award nomination for best actress for his young star, Catalina Sandino Moreno – and high praise for Marston. But the independent film collapse of the mid-2000s, and the subsequent economic slide, made things difficult.
After working on a couple of other projects, Marston surfaced again last February when The Forgiveness of Blood won the screenwriting prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for Marston and his Albanian co-writer, Andamion Murataj.
The film was inspired by a newspaper article about the resurfacing of the kanun, an ancient Albanian legal code dating back to the 15th century that allows for revenge killings, a phenomenon that has seen the deaths of more than 9,000 Albanians since the end of communism in the early nineties.
The story focuses on 17-year-old Nik (Tristan Halilaj), a modern teen who sends text message and plays video games, but is trapped inside his home facing a death sentence, while his sister is forced to quit school to maintain the family bread-delivery business.
Marston recently spoke to The Globe about his film.
How do you explain that you’re an American whose first two films are based in different countries and were made in different languages?
I’m interested in different countries, in politics, in different cultures, in anthropology. As well – and I’m a bit hesitant about how this may look in print – but the United States has a bad rap for being insular and there are serious consequences for the rest of the world. On a personal level, each new culture is a puzzle for me to figure out: to learn a new language, to understand where people come from, their sociology and their ways of preserving the past. That said, I don’t intend to only make films in other countries. Ideally, I think I would like to make one film in the United States for every film I made in another country.
What drew you to this material, which might be considered just a bizarre cultural anomaly? Did you see it as a kind of a larger political allegory?
I don’t tend to be interested in allegory. I was interested in human beings and their predicament and a lot of it is things we share in common: a kid growing up, justice and revenge. It’s about a father and son and through that, about the past and the present finding each other, about a world in transition.
Most accounts of Albanian blood feuds locate them in the rural and northern part of the country. Did the people you cast have any direct connections to them?
It’s changed. With the fall of communism, there was a breakdown in the courts and the prison system and a power vacuum [that]allowed the old ideas of justice to resurface. But there was a lot more immigration to the cities and with it, the feuds. So now, instead of people living on adjacent farms, people [are]living on top of each other in the city. The actor who played the father had a feud in his family. The actor who played Nik had a feud within his extended family. I’d say, at a rough guess, about 10 to 15 per cent of the actors we auditioned had some direct experience of it.
In Payback, her new film about the different meanings of debt, Canadian documentary director Jennifer Baichwal also deals with an Albanian blood feud. I understand you both met with the same hustler guide who agreed to introduce you to his world.
Yeah. The first day he wanted to talk about money and I decided I wasn’t comfortable with him. There is a lot of ego and bluster and pride. You have to work around it. The idea of blood doesn’t just mean what runs in your veins. It’s deep in the idiom.
The Forgiveness of Blood was selected as Albania’s official Oscar entry but last October the academy changed its mind, in response to an objection from Albanian director Bujar Alimani that it was an American production. It was a controversial call, when other international films, like the French-Finnish film, Le Havre, were accepted. What was your reaction?
Well, I knew I wasn’t Albanian. But it was an Albanian story with Albanian performances and we did a lot of checking at every point, and a lot of collaboration. The film had a huge response and broke box-office records in Albania and the Albanian Oscar selection committee of respected film professionals gave it their stamp of approval as a film they believed in. When the academy reversed that decision, they felt wronged and dishonoured. It was egregious, almost colonial with a real arrogance that was very lamentable.
This interview has been condensed and edited.