Per the film's official synopsis, The Forgiveness of Blood "focuses on an Albanian family caught up in a blood feud. Nik (Tristan Halilaj) is a carefree teenager in a small town with a crush on the school beauty and ambitions to start his own internet café. His world is suddenly up-ended when his father and uncle become entangled in a land dispute that leaves a fellow villager murdered. According to a centuries-old code of law, this entitles the dead man's family to take the life of a male from Nik's family as retribution. His uncle in jail and his father in hiding, Nik is the prime target and confined to the home while his younger sister Rudina (Sindi Laçej) is forced to leave school and take over their father's business."
Joshua Marston is the writer and director of Maria Full of Grace (HBO Films/Fine Line Features). The film garnered numerous awards, including the Audience Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Best First Film at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival, the 2004 Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay, and the aforementioned Academy Award® nomination for Best Actress. He recently directed the Coney Island section of the feature New York, I Love You starring Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach. In addition, he has directed episodes of Six Feet Under (HBO), How to Make it in America (HBO), In Treatment (HBO), and Law & Order (NBC). Mr. Marston received an MA in Political Science from the University of Chicago and an MFA in filmmaking from New York University. He has been a recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and of residencies at the MacDowell and Millay artist colonies. Marston's films were recently added to MoMA's permanent collection.
My thanks to Christine Slaton of Allied-THA for facilitating my conversation with Marston. The Forgiveness of Blood is currently screening at Landmark's Bridge Theatre in San Francisco and will shift to The Flicks in Boise on April 6, 2012.
* * *
Michael Guillén: Joshua, I feel a need to preface our conversation today with something of an apology. As I was doing my preparatory research, I realized you have been interviewed about 5,000 times for Forgiveness of Blood so please bear with me if we cover similar territory.
Joshua Marston: All part of the job.
Guillén: I'm hoping we might steer our conversation towards a research project I'm working on regarding the pros and cons of the category of "national cinema(s)", which I believe you are uniquely suited to comment upon because of your particular style of immersive filmmaking; a style that contests and—in some ways—thwarts the tropes of national cinemas.
Guillén: You are an American director who—through a set of economic circumstances not completely under your control—has ended up working outside of the United States. You first created what was considered a Colombian film (Maria Full of Grace) and now an Albanian film (The Forgiveness of Blood). Naturally, this leads me to question the nature of American independent filmmaking and to ask you if you have a sense if American independent filmmaking is in itself a kind of national cinema?
Marston: American independent filmmaking is so diverse that I wouldn't know how to characterize it in terms of its style. There are subcategories. Within dramatic narratives there are the quintessential Sundance comedies and mumblecore films; but, I don't know what makes American cinema "American", per se.
Guillén: Other than, perhaps, the difficulty of making independent films in America?
Marston: Is it more difficult? It's more difficult only insofar as there are no federal or state subsidies or incentives as there are in Germany and France. But I know that a lot of European filmmakers find independent filmmaking difficult because so few movies get made and—because there's not as much of a private equity or studio financing system—they all have to compete for assistance. They feel it's more difficult to get a movie made outside the United States.
Guillén: Because of the opportunity you've had to make movies outside of the United States, and your self-admitted "immersive" style of filmmaking, would you consider your type of indie filmmaking as subversive to the American style?
Marston: When you talk about British cinema, you can tell there's definitely a history of kitchen sink realist filmmaking (such as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach) and you can see similar tendencies in Italian neorealism, and—whether it's Iranian cinema or beyond—you can see a real history of realist cinema. While there is some realist filmmaking in the United States, it's not as big of a tradition. Ironically, there's not been an enormous amount of realist filmmaking in the countries where I've made my films. I was told when I was making Maria Full of Grace that my film wasn't Colombian because it didn't have a black humor to it, but I wasn't interested in passing myself off as a Colombian filmmaker. I'm me. I'm the filmmaker that I am with my own personal sensibility because of the movies that I've been inspired by, which happen to have been more realist cinema. That's why Maria Full of Grace stood out in Colombia. The same is true in Albania, I think. A lot of the people in Albania who saw Forgiveness of Blood felt they were having a cinematic experience they hadn't had before because they don't have a tradition of realist cinema.
Guillén: You come from a journalistic background. Do you feel that background has provided the documentary impulse to this realist style?
Marston: Absolutely. I've spent a lot of time living abroad and having cultural experiences dating back to my teenage years. I had the opportunity to spend a summer living with a French family, another time with an Italian family, and spent some time in Mexico. These experiences made me interested in and curious about the ways other people live. Living in a foreign culture is a bit like living in a puzzle. You're constantly being presented with things to figure out, whether it's just the language or local traditions or ways of thinking and I find that very stimulating. That actually made me want to figure things out and that's where that sensibility overlaps with the journalistic sensibility: the desire to understand how the world works. What's weird about the way I work is that I take all of these interviews and turn them into a fictional story that on the one hand makes you feel like you've been there and that you're in a real environment but on the other hand gives you an emotional ride that you might not otherwise get from straight journalism.
Guillén: I appreciate how you've phrased that. Several critics have said, yes, you immerse yourself in the countries where you film, you conduct your journalistic research, and you authenticate your films through the thoroughness of your research so that—as you say—audiences feel like they've been to these countries and directly experienced these cultures; but, even a journalist can be flippant in how they approach a foreign country. You insist upon authenticity but meld it with generic tropes. I'm aware you don't think of Forgiveness of Blood as a thriller, yet the story has the nail biting affect of a thriller. Is it your American sensibility that lends that generic trope to the work?
Marston: That's a really good observation. It helps that I am very attuned to narrative storytelling and to how the story is progressing. I'm conscious of what the dramatic question is underlying the narrative that keeps the audience from getting up to go to the bathroom. That may well be because I'm an American filmmaker and—I guess you could say—conventional in that respect. I want to tell a story that is dramatic and that keeps the audience emotionally invested.
Guillén: At Screen Daily, Mike Goodridge complimented the balance you've struck between immersion and distance. He wrote: "Marston's foreign nationality helps to bring a valuable external perspective to the material, however immersive his process in the society he is covering. A local film-maker might be less able to step away from the subject matter with such clarity of vision."
Marston: I hope that's true. I can tell you that there have been other movies about blood feuds in Albania, but I was interested in something larger or deeper; that is, a story on one hand about kids growing up and on the other hand a story about a society in transformation. Fact is, the society in transformation creates all these unusual and fascinating juxtapositions, like someone delivering bread in a horse-drawn cart while using a cell phone, or someone stuck in a house during a traditional blood feud playing video games. Those are the sorts of things that I was looking at that maybe Albanian filmmakers—because they're already living in this society—are not necessarily trying to paint a larger picture of the society and the transition they're going through. I might come at it with a different, slightly broader and more incisive point of view. I hope.
Guillén: Of the many write-ups I read on Forgiveness of Blood—the one that was key for me in providing the most insight into your particular stylistic integrity—was your fascinating conversation with Braden King for Filmmaker magazine. In your conversation with King you spoke about having to negotiate rivalries within Albania just to accomplish the production of the film. That sense of rivalry certainly came to its pointed little head with the whole Oscars® controversy. Are you willing to talk a bit about that?
Marston: Yeah, sure.
Guillén: Having weathered that experience, I guess I would first want to know what you consider to be a national cinema? How would you define it? And has AMPAS failed in correctly defining the category of a national cinema?
Marston: Well, there's only one basic relevant defining factor, I think, as far as the Oscars® are concerned and that is that there is a selection committee that resides within each country that chooses the film that it wants to represent their country. I believe that how that committee functions and hashes out which film it wants and whether or not a film is indicative of their society ought to be left up to the members of that selection committee. I don't believe that Hollywood or the Academy's executive committee has any place in dictating—in this case—to Albanian filmmakers what is or is not considered Albanian. If you're going to dignify a country with the status to enter the race, then you have to respect that country's self-determination. If the Albanian film committee looked at Forgiveness of Blood and said, "Yes, we understand that the director holds an American passport; but, for x, y and z reasons we believe that this is definitive Albanian cinema and we want to submit it", I don't think the Academy has any business overruling that or trying to know better what is or is not Albanian. It's disrespectful to a country and its filmmakers to meddle in their decision-making process.
Guillén: In a conversation I had with film historian Thomas Elsaesser, he noted that there's a cynicism that creeps into the marketed definitions of certain national cinemas. He complained that the foisting of the concept of a national cinema upon the filmmaking practices of Eastern European countries, for example, ignores the contemporary reality that filmmaking has become much more of an international enterprise. The concept of a national cinema needs to be more flexible—or be discarded altogether—in order to accommodate such an evolving reality.
Marston: At the end of the day it's a logistical choice. The Academy thinks, "We can't possibly watch every foreign movie that is made within a 12-month period." They need some way to limit all of those movies and so they choose to categorize films by country; but, the truth of the matter is that they categorize movies by country because of the notion of a national cinema: that there is a French cinema and an Italian cinema. Such categorization—though frequently validating—is increasingly irrelevant. It's in those instances where it's irrelevant that it's a shame that those movies become ineligible. The main reason it's a shame that they become ineligible is—not because winning a statuette is often the end-all of a filmmaker's career—but because being nominated for this award gives a filmmaker a greater audience. That's the shame. And it's ironic because the establishment of the award is supposed to be this good-natured, good-hearted, open-minded account to open American audiences up to foreign films, asking them to consider these movies as well and to get at least a handful of movies on the map and positioned so that American audiences will experience them. It's all ostensibly in the interest of cross-cultural understanding, right? But it's the movies that are precisely cross-cultural, that have no specific national home, that are the ones that fall through the cracks. That's tragic.
I will say one other thing about national cinemas that was a learning experience for me. When we were trying to figure out how to finance this film, we went to Cannes and had a bunch of meetings and, happily, were put in touch with Domenico Procacci who was the producer on Gomorrah (2008). The majority of the money for this film came from European funding and the reasoning behind premiering the film at Berlin was because it felt like a European film, not only because of the financing but because it's an Albanian story in the Albanian language. The assumption was that it would sell well in Europe, that it would help Europeans put Albania on the map, that they would become curious about Albania and then enter into the conversation about extending the European community. While I was there, Albania entered NATO and was still looking forward to becoming a member of the EEC.
In Europe, they're used to watching movies in subtitles so I figured the film would do well no matter if the language spoken was Albanian and the subtitles were in German or Slovenian or whatever. But I was shocked and surprised to discover that all European films are not equal, even within Europe. I attribute that to the fact that when you go to sell a movie—even if you're selling an Albanian film to Germany and France—it's not all the same. When you say on a Saturday night, "Hey, honey, do you want to go see the new French film or the new Italian film or the new Spanish film or the new German film?"—that evokes a connotation of a national cinema and a whole genre. That is a selling point when you have a film on the market. Sadly, when you say, "Honey, do you want to go see the new Albanian film?", it doesn't necessarily evoke the same warm fuzzy feelings that you get from a new French film or a new Italian film, even though European audiences will be reading subtitles, whatever film they go to see. Even within Europe there is stereotyping and prejudice that goes on by virtue of which movies come out from what given country and what associations they have.
Guillén: Fascinating. I know Jonathan Rosenbaum has cautioned against the economic hierarchy of national cinemas, so I appreciate hearing you express this as well.
Early on in the process, shortly after you'd finished the film, in some of your first interviews you expressed concern over whether Albanian audiences would accept your interpretation of the blood feud and how you had chosen to humanize the issue and make it more intimate. Clearly, because it was the Albanian selection committee's first choice for the Academy Awards®, Forgiveness of Blood ended up being appreciated by Albanian audiences on your terms?
Marston: Yeah. It broke all box office records in Albania and, in particular, a large number of teenagers went and saw the movie, which is not the usual demographic in Albania that goes to the movies, surprisingly enough: they tend to watch movies on satellite TV and the internet. It was exciting that kids were going to the theaters to see this movie about the experience of kids their own age and really responding and embracing it. That was reaffirming.
Guillén: Forgiveness of Blood practices a parallel narrative structure between the coming-of-age stories of both the brother and sister. While watching the film, I kept noting how the boy's coming of age was reflected in the way he looked into the mirror. Can you speak to how you applied that metaphor?
Marston: That's a common device for a character reflecting on themselves. Those moments in the film are specific junctures where the character is faced with a difficult dilemma. It happened at the beginning when the film establishes the base line of who he is and, ironically, you could say he's defining his identity just insofar as whether he wears his sleeves up or down. Then later when he's looking in the mirror he's at a point where he has to decide whether he's the type of character who stays and fights or runs and finds some kind of freedom for himself? He has to make his mind up what he's going to do. So the mirror provides these moments for the character to reflect and define himself.
Guillén: I also appreciated how you used multiple screens within screens; for example, the TV screens within the movie and, more specifically, the cellular video messages that were being displayed. What were you thinking of there?
Marston: Yes, there were definitely screens within screens, but for me the main thing that was happening was the level of communication and also the presence of technology in the midst of an antiquated tradition. One of the greatest impediments to these feuds getting resolved is that there are limited levels of communication between one family and another. When a feud breaks out, the family of the killer will send a mediator or a group of mediators to represent them and ask for forgiveness. That happens repeatedly. It might happen every few months over a period of years. The feud may go for a year or even a couple of years without being able to assemble a group of representatives and so it becomes difficult to communicate with the other family. The irony now is that communication could be very easy. It could be as simple as sending an email. But, it's not so easy because there are other factors involved besides technology. You have to consider the timing of when you try to reach out and communicate. And then, of course, it's often the fact that what happens in these feuds is that the families become isolated—not just from the family they're feuding with, but all the society around them—so we were able to consider: "Well, in what ways can a kid today try and fight back against this tradition of yesterday?" One of the ways is that he can use present-day technology to, at least, penetrate the isolation.
Guillén: In one of your interviews, you relayed how you actually brought laptops to some of the young kids under house arrest so that they could, at least, reach out to members of their own family. I found your commitment commendable. You're committed not only to telling the story but to be fair and forthright with the people you're interacting with; I admired that.
Marston: That's, again, the difference between being a filmmaker and a journalist. There's not the weird constraint that can be placed upon journalists where they're not allowed to assimilate and help the people they're interviewing. Journalists often find themselves in this strange quandary where they feel that—if they give financial or material help to the people they're interviewing—they compromise their objectivity. Whereas, my opportunity to help comes from more of an emotional truth.
Guillén: I likewise admire your sense of responsibility for turning non-actors into actors. You feel a certain responsibility to what's going to happen to them next, having exposed them to this form of self-expression?
Marston: For better or worse, right. After this film the lead actor Tristan Halilaj who played Nik decided to make a career out of acting. He's now in his second year of acting school in Macedonia and his main professor is Refet Abazi, the actor who plays his father in the film.
Guillén: That's fantastic. Do you have any kind of ensemble aesthetic as a director? Now that Tristan has trained as an actor, would you consider working with him again in another narrative?
Marston: It would have to be the right role. I have an ongoing joke with Catalina Sandino Moreno, the lead actress from Maria Full of Grace, about which one of us is going to get the other one work. She says if she gets me a job as a director, I have to hire her as an actress.
Guillén: [Laughs.] How funny. Now, just to make sure I understand the ending of your film a bit better, your two young actors were marvelous, you brought them along to accomplished performances, but I wanted to make sure that I understand what it means that the boy has to leave home. He's given the chance to live in exile to pay the debt; but, living in exile is, in effect, the same as his being murdered. Is that correct?
Marston: The mother makes that equation, yeah.
Guillén: Is the blood feud then resolved by his going into self-imposed exile?
Marston: No, the blood feud is definitely not resolved. The patriarch of the opposing family said very clearly that—while they won't seek out Nik—if they spot him in front of his family house, they will kill him.
Guillén: Is his younger brother still in danger?
Marston: When he comes of age, yeah.
Guillén: How are we meant to read his sister's face in that final close-up in the film? Her expression is mysterious. Can you speak to that?
Marston: Well, it's perhaps mysterious, but I would hope it is complex, in the sense that she's feeling a stream of emotions. On the one hand, she's grieving the loss of her brother and feeling that, in some ways, her family is being chipped away at; but, on the other hand, there is hopefully a mixed blessing or silver lining to this story in that she has been strengthened by all that has been put upon her. You have the sense that—even though she's been left behind to take care of things—there is some hope in the notion that she is a strong, young woman. She'll be able to fend for herself and for her family, regardless of what happens. That final moment is meant to be bittersweet.
Guillén: You've become associated with working with non-actors and yet this is not necessarily exactly what you want? You have worked with professional actors as well, such as in your segment for New York, I Love You. Can you speak to the difference for you as a director to work with non-actors as opposed to professional actors?
Marston: Well, the truth is that in both Maria Full of Grace and The Forgiveness of Blood there are several trained actors working with the non-actors, moreso in Maria Full of Grace but there are a half dozen trained actors in Forgiveness of Blood as well. In some respects, I appreciate what Ken Loach has said that there's no difference between a non-actor or untrained actor and a trained actor. Everyone's an actor in a film and, as the director, you're dealing with the emotional substance of a scene that you have to shoot on any given day. In the same way that the director's job among trained actors is to figure out the language that the actor responds to best, if you're dealing with an untrained actor you're doing the same thing: you're figuring out what language this person will respond to and just because someone's had formal training doesn't mean that they're going to be easier to work with. It just means you might use a different language. In that respect, it's just one large universe of different languages that a director uses to speak to his performers. The one thing that I will say is that in places like Colombia and Albania there is one strong tendency that predominates in each of those places and it tends to be more melodramatic in approach, in contrast to the United States or Western Europe where there are a lot of different schools of acting and a real diversity in approach. In Colombia there are a lot of telenovelas and in Albania it's broad theatrical acting. There, the advantage of a non-actor is that they're going to be a little bit more realist in their approach.
Guillén: How do you negotiate between your professional actors and your non-actors to achieve a uniformity in tone?
Marston: Well, that's my job as a director. Even though everyone is coming from a different place in terms of their training or the language that they respond to. But I have to give credit to the trained actors in this film who helped to coach and guide the young untrained actors. Refet Abazi who plays the father and Ilire Vinca Celaj who plays the mother are both acting professors. They helped me to help the kids feel comfortable and to find their moments in the script.
Guillén: You mentioned that Tristan has decided to pursue an acting career. Has Sindi decided to do so as well?
Marston: Not yet. She's still in high school so I don't think she's decided what she wants to do.
Guillén: Now that The Forgiveness of Blood has opened theatrically, can you look back on its film festival trajectory and cull out what were some of the key moments for you?
Marston: Obviously some of the better moments were getting the Silver Bear at Berlin and having the open-air screening at Saravejo, which—partly because of the nature of the number of people and the historical context of how that festival came into existence—makes that festival a very special place to bring a movie. The one other highlight for me would be Telluride, which is a festival that I brought a short film to back when I was still a film student. I was so enamored of the festival that I've been back as a spectator just about every year. I had one other short film show at Telluride, but I wasn't able to bring Maria Full of Grace because it premiered at Sundance. The best outcome of having The Forgiveness of Blood premiere at Berlin was that it allowed Telluride to be the film's North American premiere.