By Christopher Bell | The Playlist February 21, 2012 at 2:22PM
Two teenagers, Nik and Rudina (great first timers Tristan Halilaj and Sindi Lacej), are forced to quit school when their father and uncle murder a neighboring land owner. Despite the incident being a culmination of what feels like years and years of bickering, it still comes as a shock to everyone, with the kids immediately thrust into completely different lifestyles. Their uncle is swiftly arrested for the crime, but the patriarch manages to escape into hiding, thereby escalating the tension and causing a blood feud between the remaining family members. Only the women of the family are able to leave the house, forcing Rudina to pick up the bread delivery business her father left behind. Nik, on the other hand, is confined to their house not only out of respect for the dead, but for his own safety. By the time the father sneaks back for a visit, it's understood that the only way to alleviate the discord would be his imprisonment -- a notion he's not particularly keen on, but one that his son is increasingly moving towards.
With a tight, carefully plotted script (which he co-wrote with producer Andamion Murataj), Marston builds tension in subtle ways (an early scene that establishes the conflict between families is expertly restrained) and manages to sustain it skillfully, with even the quieter moments carrying an unstable threat. We were able to sit down with the director for a little pow-wow, discussing the significance of family in Albania, his career thus-far, and the Academy's rejection of the film for a Best Foreign Oscar nomination. "The Forgiveness Of Blood" opens in limited release February 24.
Considering he's L.A. born, the two features that make up Marston's resume -- the Colombian-set "Maria Full of Grace" and the Albanian drama "The Forgiveness of Blood" -- stick out as unique choices for an American filmmaker. However, in the director's younger days, he did some extensive traveling, citing a summer abroad in France that "completely reoriented" his life. "For me it's a fascination to go into another world and learn about something new. Partly that's because when you're in a foreign environment everything is stimulating and there's a certain puzzle that you're trying to figure out. It's interesting to find a way to represent this culture to an audience so they could have a similar experience in discovering something new," the director explained. "I'm always very nervous to not be able to 'crack' the culture. But I think that concern motivates me to continue asking questions and go well beyond the point that I might otherwise need to to understand something."
During the start of his travels in Albania, he met someone in the capital who gave him a good deal of insight on the country's blood feuds. "After about four weeks of research in the north of Albania and eventually returning to that same person, I realized that I ended up knowing more than that person. I'd arrived at a place where I may know more about the intricacies of this phenomenon than this average person, and that makes me feel some sort of confidence." It's this studious nature that paid off in spades, with the country choosing "The Forgiveness Of Blood" to represent them at the Academy Awards. Unfortunately, it was a submission that was ultimately disqualified as not being "Albanian" enough.
"For me the most significant part in the entire process was that a committee of filmmakers in Albania embraced 'Forgiveness.' They didn't just think that it was a movie that was well-made enough that they would want to vote for it, but that it was accurate and authentic enough in telling a true Albanian story. That, to me, was validation of the collaboration that I had done with the actors and everyone else involved in making the movie, that I had gotten the country right on screen," Marston told us. "What was frustrating and disappointing was the fact that the country, with a very nascent filmmaking industry, had taken this leap and was basically told by a bunch of people in California that they knew better than they did what was or wasn't Albanian. It was weird, but I also think it was disrespectful more than that. I understand that the Academy wants to have rules, but at the end of the day what we're seeing is that there'll never be one set of rules that will fit all different countries. I think that kind of system, a one-size-fits-all rule system, is a kind of American fantasy. If you're going to certify a committee in each of these countries that will pick and send a film, then you should trust that committee to figure it out on their own and respect their decision."
Albanians have plenty of concerns, but few are more important than family. Unfortunately, conflicts between two people can often put relatives' life in danger solely because of their family name. "People think Albanian blood-feuds are an eye for an eye, but they'd be lucky if it was like that. It's a whole family for an eye, or even an extended family for an eye, because the notion of family in that country is so strong. The effect of that is that an entire clan can pay the price for what one person does," Marston said.
This shouldn't give the wrong idea, as not many of the countrymen are thirsting for blood and their concept of strong, familial connections is quite warm. In fact, the director described the difference between his interpretation of the ending and the Albanians', theirs focusing more on the loss of family. "I wanted a bittersweet ending and I thought it was a positive conclusion because he got to go off on his own and be free. The positivity of this was sort of offset was by the fact that his family was still stuck in the blood feud," the director elaborated. "When I gave the script to the Albanians, they thought the bitter part was the simple fact that he had to leave his family. And that has to do with the different conception of family to Albanians."
His resume wasn't always set to be made up of two foreign based films though, as Marston had lined up a number of projects after his debut, but failed to get the motor going on any of them. "It's been a learning process to understand what is a viable film project and what is not. I wrote more than one that people had liked, but the budget required was greater than the amount of money than people valued it in the marketplace. 'Forgiveness' is really a response to the frustrations of trying to work within the system. It doesn't mean that I don't want to in the future, but I had a series of projects that almost happened and didn't," he lamented.
The one with the most traction followed a few middle-aged truck drivers in the Iraq War, a feature that was set up at Warner Independent but had trouble getting the right funding and talent attached. As the U.S.'s time in Iraq comes to a close, so do the prospects of ever making that movie. "Every six months I get a phone call from someone asking about the rights situation on that. But the problem is I don't think there are a lot of people right now who, on a Saturday night, are aching to see a movie about the war in Iraq. And they never were, that was part of the sad discovery." The director noted that the end result was different from your typical war movie, but even that wasn't enough to get the money flowing.
Despite the thwarted projects in between his two features, there's still a plan to do the bigger, genre-based pictures. "To me, there's no point in making films if you're not learning in each one. That doesn't mean you have to learn about another culture, you can be learning how to blow up buildings. That would be interesting to me too, and I hope to eventually get that opportunity. For me, the best opportunity would be able to alternate, to make a film like 'Maria' or 'Forgiveness' every time out, and on the other side to make genre films or English language films. I'm most in awe of filmmakers who have very diverse [filmographies], people like Ang Lee and Steven Soderbergh."
In the meantime Marston is prepping "The Double Hour," a psychological thriller and remake of the Italian noir by Giuseppe Capotondi, and also directing an episode the Aaron Sorkin HBO jump-off "The Newsroom." As for dream projects, Marston noted, "I love science-fiction and have had various sci-fi projects that I've toyed with and would love to find one that would get to the big screen."
Particularly inspired by British filmmakers such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, this director succeeds in creating very lived-in environments and natural character interactions. That said, there is an effective distress maintained throughout the picture, and Marston admitted that he didn't want to be tied down to realism.
"I thought this film should have a certain lyricism to it. The director of photography and I decided that we would open up and breathe in certain places because the passage of time is so important to the narrative. So, as we went through shooting it, the style of the film had a couple of different motifs and such, and whichever one we employed depended on what was going on in the scene and where we were in the narrative. The film is doing a bunch of things at the same time," he pointed out. "It's hopefully creating tension and threat, and also a lived authenticity and realism of what it's like to be a kid in Northern Albania. Additionally, we were creating a cinematic interpretation of the passage of time, of being stuck in the house. It's about a kid who goes from having every day defined by when school starts and ends to a life when every single day is the same, weekends are the same as weekdays and there are no such thing as summer vacations and you don't know how long that's going to last. So time becomes a very different animal to him."