Joshua Marston doesn't take the easy road. Perhaps that's what makes him—and his films—so compelling. His feature debut, Maria Full of Grace, was an Oscar-nominated drama about a teenager who becomes a drug courier in order eke out a better life, and his sophomore feature, The Forgiveness of Blood, dramatizes the repercussions of a blood feud between two families in Albania after a man kills his neighbor, which forces his teenage son to cope with an ancient law that obliges him to remain at home. Marston, throughout his films, addresses issues of family, law, and justice, displaying a gift for creating morally gray situations that challenge audience's preconceptions. In a recent phone interview, Marston spoke about The Forgiveness of Blood, what he learned about Albanian law during the film's making, and how he would respond if he where thrust into main character's situation.
How did you find this story and why did you decide to tell it?
I think the thing that interested me about the story isn't the feud, per se, but the contrast between the old and the new in Albania. Here's a kid sending texts and playing video games, but he's stuck inside, because of this ancient law. In Albania, you see the old and new coexist side by side; that was what was fascinating to me. Not a lot of people have gotten a glimpse of that. I think it will be interesting for audiences. It's different than what we've seen in films before.
You let the viewer understand what a besa is through the context of its application. How familiar were you with these terms/laws before making this film, and how did you intend to present them to viewers?
The biggest challenge was in making the film for an American, European, and Albanian audience. I couldn't stop the film to explain Albania. It was interesting to write dialogue so these concepts are used and spoken of in a context where the viewer can glean what they must mean and what they are. The hope is that by the end of the film you walk out feeling you understand Albanian law—that you pick it up as you go along and not feel you got a lesson. It required a lot more for me in making the film to understand these concepts, which are very rich. Besa could be translated as "truce," but that word literally translates to "promise" in English—that you are making a promise. Your word—and keeping it—is a vital thing in Albania to maintain your honor. If you break your word you lose your honor, which is one of the gravest things in Albania. You get a sense of the truce, and because it isn't translated, it must mean more than just a truce. You learn it in context and how it's used.
There's a line in the film about the long way being shorter, and safer, which is a kind of metaphor for the Kanun; following it through the years is best for less grief. Do you think this is true?
I love that you thought about that in a metaphorical sense! If I talked about it in a metaphor, Albania, the country, has a difficult road ahead of it in modernizing. And you, or Europeans, would think the easiest way to modernize is to change—to stop blood feuds. But that short distance between two points isn't the most viable way to go. It sometime requires a less direct, more circuitous route.
Can you elaborate?
In Albania, there's an attempt in the capital to make feuds go away. Aside from passing certain laws, they need to mediate and bring to an end feuds that are already ongoing. One approach is to send lawyers or trained mediators to small towns to hear both sides and figure it out. Or they might send the police. The problem is that these feuds exist because the [people] don't trust the state, or the state doesn't give them what they need. When someone in your family is killed, your family loses their honor, and the way to recuperate that is to kill. Villages in feuds trust local elders who use the Kanun. Why doesn't the government give a subsidy to those elders? That would be like paying these men to apply the Kanun, which has no basis in law and gives legitimacy to a non-legal process.
Like Maria Full of Grace, The Forgiveness of Blood also depicts breaking the law for one's betterment. In The Forgiveness of Blood, Nik wants to break the law of the Kanun, while his sister, Rudina, sells cigarettes on the black market to earn extra money the family needs. Why is this theme of illegal activity so prominent in your work?
No one else made that connection! For me, it's that the characters are pushed to work outside the rules and take risks in order to get what they want. As soon as you see someone do that you are rooting for and worried about them at the same time, so it makes great dramatic tension.
The violence in the film mostly happens off screen. I'm sure it was deliberate—to keep some of the action ambiguous. Did you not feel you needed to show blood in depicting a blood feud?
The most important thing to me is to stay true to a point of view. The starting point was, "What would it be like to be stuck in a feud if you're a 17-year-old kid?" I developed a story from that point of view, so I wanted to be true to that. It was important for me to stay in that [perspective]. We see what our main character, our storyteller sees. Part of the story is Nik trying to decide for himself whether or not there's justification for what his father has done. He takes a journey, emotionally, where his impression of his father changes over the course of the film. Because he doesn't see the concrete facts of what happened, that leaves more room for him to imagine it and for his imagination of the events changes over time.
Can you talk about your visual approach to storytelling: the use of handheld camera, the tension you create with space and windows, and so on?
That's intentional. There are some basic contrasts/dichotomies in the film. One is adult versus child. Nik is caught squarely in between that. He's old enough to be targeted, but not old enough to be treated as an adult in his own family. Another is between the world outside and the world inside of the house. When we started filming, all boundaries between interior and exterior became very significant. We became very aware of windows and doors, darkness and light. The characters are constantly riding this boundary line—physically and metaphorically. Every time they come close to the line, we worry about them getting hurt or shot. We played with looking out windows and doors.
You cast nonprofessional actors here. Was that deliberate?
Yeah…it's enjoyable to [mold] them. There's an advantage—more of a sense of realism. But in the case of this film, there's not a lot of choice as there aren't many teenage Albanian actors. It was more a choice for adult roles. There's a specific tradition and style of acting in that area that's not as realistic, so when it came time to cast even bit parts, I felt I could get more of a sense of texture of the place by using real people, whether it was the local shopkeeper or actual mediators who have been mediating blood feuds for decades. They bring all their experience to the part that you can't get from a trained actor.
The relatives in the family "want to solve their own problems." But they create problems too. Was your intention to show the pitfalls and ironies of the peace process and how these factors affect the families involved?
One of the things that makes feuds in Albania very peculiar and surprising for an American audience is that it's not just eye-for-an-eye retribution; it extends to the wider family. If my cousin kills someone, my family has to stay indoors. Family has a wider meaning in Albania; the stakes are higher. A murder affects your whole extended family. That's what makes the story most complicated; it's the fact that their actions don't only have ramification for themselves, but their family as well. It's what makes taking action so complicated. It starts with the frustration that the kids are paying a price for a crime they didn't commit. It's their father's crime, and they're put in the position that leaving the house or getting a gun can affect the entire balance for their whole family. Nik's crush on a girl runs a risk that not just he can be brought down; anyone in his family can be paying the price.
The film is very much about honor and ritual and respect. Some of these same themes were also evident in Maria Full of Grace. Why are they so important to you?
These are, broadly speaking, fascinating and important themes. One of the common points is that they're both films about teenagers. The drama is frequently about characters confronting something and being changed by it. Teenagers are by definition going through change in becoming adults, so they lend themselves well to interesting stories. So the question of responsibility and justice comes up.
I'm curious, what were you like as a teen?
[laughs] I didn't take the risks Maria takes or Nik takes. I was a good student.
So, what would you do if you were in Nik's situation?
[sighs] I don't know what I would do. It's hard to conceive of it. You can't leave the house because someone wants to kill you. I'd submit to it for a little while, and I think I would try to find some way out to fight back.