What fascinated me most was that it’s happening now, even in the context of cell phones, Facebook and the Internet.
Joshua Marston isn’t one to shy away from tackling films of explicit anthropological importance. The writer-director made his directorial debut in 2004 with Maria Full of Grace—it hurled the then-unknown Catalina Sandino Moreno into the Best Actress Oscar race against titans, Hillary Swank and Kate Winslet—about a pregnant Colombian teenager who, out of desperation, becomes a drug mule to support her family. Nearly 8 years later, Marston presents his sophomore feature, The Forgiveness of Blood, which meticulously renders the blood feuds of Albania, a society still ruled by customs and laws dating back to the 15th century that decree a male life for a male life.
The Forgiveness of Blood tells the story of Nik (Tristan Halilaj), whose father is involved in the death of a neighboring man following a petty land dispute. It puts the freedom of Nik’s entire family in permanent jeopardy. With a blood feud declared, his family is forced into self-shackled confinement in their home, indefinitely. Trapped indoors, he watches as his sister (Sindi Lacej)—who, as a young girl, isn’t targeted—takes on the family business delivering bread to local merchants by horse and buggy. For Nik, adolescence becomes a threat in itself as his desire to be around his girlfriend, attend school and chart his own identity collides with age-old traditions.
The Forgiveness of Blood opens in New York and Los Angeles on February 24.
Following Maria Full of Grace and now with The Forgiveness of Blood, you’re being called an “anthropological director.” What are your feelings on that kind of categorization?
Joshua Marston: I’m very happy about being put in that box and I’m proud of it, but I don’t want that to be the only box. I think people are responding to, hopefully, the authenticity of the films that come out of my specific process. I’m going to places where they maybe haven’t been and engaging with the people there, and then converting their stories into something that’s fictional, yet based in truth. That’s what I enjoy doing and would love to continue doing, but I also want to explore more conventional—maybe genre—films that aren’t subtitled.
What was the driving force behind your decision to leap from journalism to filmmaking?
JM: It actually came out of trying a lot of different things. I was never a full-fledged journalist. I was a photographer, studied political science, did an internship at ABC in Paris—I thought I would go into the Foreign Service—and worked briefly in journalism. Basically, each thing was interesting, but they were lacking something. Most specifically, each thing felt too narrow. What I like about making films is that I can combine all of these things. I can make films for the journalism, but it’s not just about getting the story. It also has an anthropological and sociological side to it. It’s about trying to understand the structures and the inner workings of how a society functions. With that, I can do something that’s creative and visual as well. For me, this was the best way to combine all of my interests.
How did you find Tristan and Sindi? Walk us through your casting process.
JM: We went school to school. We had a contact in administrative education in Albania who allowed us to do something that we couldn’t do in the States. Every morning, we would get in the car and send her a text message, and she would send one back with the name of a school. The schools would give us a room—the computer lab was usually the most underutilized room they had—and the teachers would send us small groups of students that we could interview. Tristan came in at the end of a very long day and insisted on telling us some stories.
Was that a completely alien experience for you, Tristan?
Tristan Halilaj: I don’t know how to explain it… It was something new, you know? I went to the auditions and had a lot of fun. It was two months of auditioning.
JM: I knew that Tristan was probably the right one for the part, but we hadn’t found Sindi yet, so I couldn’t commit to him right away. I kept using him over and over for the callbacks with the other kids. You have to understand that Tristan and Sindi are sort of opposites. Tristan was in his third school after being kicked out twice. I loved that he was sleeping in class. I think this movie was finally something interesting for him. Sindi, on the other hand, was an A student in a really great school. For her, this was interesting because she loves challenges.
TH: In the auditions where I was being paired up with 2 or 3 girls, Josh always asked me who I liked working with best, so I thought I was definitely going to be in the movie. [Laughs]
Sindi Lacej: When I was auditioning with different guys, including Tristan, Josh asked me who I liked best and I told him I liked Tristan. After that, Josh set up more auditions for the two of us. Tristan and I were making jokes all the time and it felt like we knew each other from before even though we didn’t. This brother/sister relationship really came out of those auditions.
JM: We started off by doing a bunch of improvisations. Tristan and Sindi were the first ones I cast, so I had already started working with them when I was casting for the other parts. We would do these improvisations where I give them scenes to play out like, “You’re going to a party and you need to get her to iron your shirt.” I had them get into arguments and negotiate things. I wanted to figure out their dynamic and build their relationship that way.
What do nonprofessional actors afford directors that trained or seasoned actors don’t?
JM: More than anything, hopefully, an authenticity and a realism to the performances. These kids are tapping into their own lives and extracting whatever is necessary in order to become these characters. I wouldn’t dismiss formal acting training, but there’s a way in which—depending on the type of acting or the type of training—it can sometimes get in the way. For instance, there’s a prominent style of acting in Albania that’s very melodramatic and theatrical. Working with kids who haven’t already developed those habits means that I don’t have to undo them.
Where did you first hear or read about Albanian blood feuds?
JM: I read about it in the newspaper here in the States. I was reading about these families living in self-imposed house arrests because some member of their family, or their extended family even, killed someone many years ago and the whole family owes a life in return. What fascinated me most was that it’s happening now, even in the context of cell phones, Facebook and the Internet. The modern and the traditional are co-existing. I wanted to make a film about that from the point-of-view of a 17-year-old kid because that generation will best represent this sort of juxtaposition.
The research and development stages leading up to the shoot must have been quite immersive.
JM: I went to Albania with an Albanian guy who lives in New York. We spent a month there and went into the houses of families that are living in isolation. We interviewed mediators that go back and forth between the families, at-home teachers and NGOs. We spent a month interviewing as many people as possible. We hung out in front of schools and had conversations with teenagers, just so I could understand what teenage life is like in Albania. The whole month was very immersive. I was trying to understand a country that I had never been to before.
Did you come back with some wild stories?
JM: Oh, so many. There were two in particular. One was the family of a boy—he was 13 when I first met him—whose father had heard someone outside the house and went out with a gun to investigate. He found someone holding onto the window, presumably to break into the house, but he didn’t know for sure. His version of the story is that the “intruder” jumped on him and the gun went off, and that’s how the man was killed. He immediately called the police and turned himself in, and was sentenced to jail. He probably spent more than a year and a half in jail. Then he went directly from jail to his house for self-confinement. His son had already been in the house since the murder happened. There was a moment in that conversation—I spent the whole afternoon with them—when I asked the boy, “What do you miss most?” I immediately noticed that he was very, very quiet. He thought about it for a moment before saying, “My friends,” and then he started crying. It was very moving. There’s another family that Tristan mentioned…
TH: Christian was an 18-year-old who was in his house since he was 3 years old. Christian was quiet too. He was really into lifting weights. I spent a lot of time taking to him and that helped me create my character.
It’s incredible that these families would be so open about such private matters.
JM: It has a lot to do with the tradition of hospitality in Albania.
SL: We went to one house and met a girl, but I didn’t know what to ask her because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I wanted to create my character, but the situation is so delicate. She was telling me what she does for a living, how she doesn’t hang out with her friends or go to school—have a normal life—and she started crying. For me, that meeting was like watching a documentary of her life. She helped me so much. After that, when we were doing rehearsals, I felt like I was different after having been with her. Meeting these people was so important.
TH: With Christian, you could see that he was being very careful when he was talking. You could sense that he was afraid of saying the wrong thing.
JM: Its because he had spent his entire life worrying that if he was photographed for an interview or said the wrong thing that someone would try and kill him. There are all sorts of perverse stories that you can’t even imagine. It was very clear when I first interviewed him that he didn’t want his photograph published. He had been in the house long enough that there was a hope the other family wouldn’t even recognize him if he were to go outside. I went back at one point to visit Christian and he had gotten his driver’s license. He was supposedly in the house since he was 3, so I was confused. Basically, when he turned 18, he said, “Fuck it!” and decided to go out. His mother was terrified. Christian’s reasoning was that they didn’t forbid him from leaving the house, they would only kill him if they saw him out. He had been thinking about the most important and symbolic thing that he wanted and it happened to be his driver’s license. The irony being that, after getting it, I don’t know if he had some other reason to go out and actually use the license. [Laughs] We went back to premiere the movie and he came with his whole family. He told me that he had stopped being in the house. We thought it was a cause for celebration, but he still looked a little depressed. He described this really weird encounter where he had gone out and saw someone across the street from the other family who was presumably trying to kill him all those years. This person looked at him and didn’t react in any sort of way that would imply that they were shocked. So all it did was make Christian think, “How much earlier, how long ago could I have gone out?” because there are no official court orders or rules. It’s all very nebulous.
Just out of curiosity, would the consequences be any different if a woman or a child is killed?
JM: Yes. If a woman is killed, you owe more blood than if a man is killed. If a child is killed or a woman is pregnant when she is killed, it’s different. If you’re defending your livelihood when the incident occurs, then you’re in some way exempt from retribution. If you kill someone who happens to be a guest on your land or in your house, it’s especially dishonorable. It’s all very specific, but the rules are also, in a weird way, vague. It seems like there’s always some other rule that contradicts or overrides the rule you’re looking at.
Maybe a happy movie after this one?
JM: [Laughs] I’m actually working on something with Fox Searchlight right now.