“The Forgiveness of Blood” flows so well that you feel entirely transported into its story, regardless of how remote it may seem at first. As I noted in my review, this intense narrative of Albanian teenagers coping with the sudden advent of a blood feud unfolds in such an emotionally universal way that there is almost no obstacle to empathy and identification. Films made like this become such cohesive experiences that you can forget the guiding hand of a director altogether.
Yet when I think more about “The Forgiveness of Blood,” that doesn’t seem possible. The director is Joshua Marston, an American who’s only other film is the equally international “Maria Full of Grace.” It seems entirely unlikely that an American could go to these foreign countries and create works that seem so organic, lacking any blatant imposition of a filmmaker’s almost tourist-like perspective. There’s no fetishization of cultural images and nothing is exoticized or contrived. It’s like an anti-“Slumdog Millionaire.” After realizing that, the only logical thing to do was to sit down with Marston and find out how he does it.
How did you first come across the topic of blood feuds?
Joshua Marston: This is how Albania gets written about in the newspaper. The blood feuds are the one thing anyone ever writes about. What captured my attention was the contrast between the old and the new. It’s a feud that is specifically referencing a set of rules and laws that go back for centuries [The Kanun]. It’s not just an eye for an eye, but rather an eye for an eye with these caveats and these rules of how you can go about it and under what circumstances. All of the rules are completely antiquated. That was fascinating, that it took place in the context of kids with cell phones going on Facebook.
What was the research process like?
There were two aspects of it. One was just learning about blood feuds and about the experience of being stuck in the house. It was interviewing families who were living in isolation, mediators and teachers who do home schooling, NGOs and anyone related to a blood feud. Beyond that, it was trying to understand Albania and what it’s like to be teenager there. It was waiting until school lets out and striking up conversations with kids about what they do after school, whether they get pocket money and how they spend it. How they get dates. That way I would know about normal life before it gets interrupted.
The real “a-ha” moment for me was when I was having a conversation with the mayor of a town who was college educated, had a law degree, was definitely a very modern guy. I said, “Hypothetically, if your brother or your uncle flew off the handle and killed someone today, what would your first reaction be?” And without batting an eye he immediately said, “I would go home. I would call my friends and ask them to go get my son out of school and bring him home. We would all as a family stay inside the house, close the doors and windows, and stay indoors until we heard that there was some sort of mediation.” And so the idea that even someone who is “modern and educated” would still have that instinct made me feel that this was still deeply embedded in the psyche of Albanians.
Watching the film, you get the sense that the younger generation is not necessarily following the lead of their parents on the issue. Do you think that these kids are moving away from the culture of blood feuds?
It’s sort of sad. For the most part the kids completely reject it. They think that it’s antiquated and of their parents’ generation. Kids are certainly not reading and studying the Kanun. However, the importance of ego and honor and the notion, that if someone wrongs you or does something that causes you to lose face then you must take revenge, still exists. It’s very important to stand up for yourself and your family. There is still a very deeply embedded sense of protecting your pride.
We were in a private, Christian school that cost a lot of money, kids with parents who were educated and had white collar jobs. We’d ask these kids, “If you’re uncle got into a fight and your uncle was killed would you pick up a gun and take revenge?” “No.” “If your father was killed in a fight would you let the police handle it?” “Of course.” “If your sister was raped or killed, what would you do?” “I’d pick up a gun and I’d go find that bastard.” So I don’t think the line has been erased, I think the line has just moved.
Were there any negative reactions to your project while filming or doing research?
Well, it’s not the first film to be made about a blood feud. Pretty much every Albanian director has a script in their back pocket about a blood feud, I think. It’s almost ridiculous, to the point that if you’re Albanian and you’re looking for dramatic material it’s the obvious place to go. Everyone either knows someone who has been in a feud or has heard of a feud, or at least some sort of revenge situation. It’s part of the culture.
I think what’s different about this film is that it steps outside of that “he said she said” hermetic environment of who is right or wrong within the feud. We ask whether it’s right or wrong that this feud is even going on. I think that’ll be different for an Albanian audience. I also don’t know of any Albanian film that has focused on how the kids experience it. The opposing family isn’t really in the movie. I got a very specific point of view, which is not the Albanian way to cover a feud. You’d go back and forth; you’d see people trying to kill each other. I’m curious to see how people react.
Are you ever concerned that your films will be, if not necessarily exploitative, more along the lines of tourist cinema than a truthful and honest portrayal of your subject matter? How do you avoid that?
I worry about it every minute of every day that I’m making the film. It’s constantly on my mind. That’s why I told the story about the mayor. We were trying to meet families who were in isolation, and the government says, “Well, there aren’t any” or, “Their numbers are dwindling.” Then we’d get a mediator to take us to a family that’s in isolation. After five hours of being in their house, while shaking their hands and leaving we’d say “Well, at least the problem is being resolved,” and they’d say “what do you mean? There are three families across the valley who are living in isolation.” It wasn’t until I had that conversation with the mayor that I felt legitimate making a movie about this. I didn’t want to be exploitative, I didn’t just want to hop on the bandwagon with journalists who just want to do something easy and need something to write about so that they can further their career. I wanted to make sure that I was genuine.
The more I learned about the subject, the more I could figure out if someone in Albania actually knew less than I did. They might know one specific case, because of a family member or a friend involved, but beyond that they only knew what the rumor was. Whereas I had gone and been in the houses of a dozen families living in isolation, so I had all this first-hand knowledge. In a way I think that concern that you raise drives me to keep asking more and more questions, to constantly make sure that what I’m doing is honest. It’s not just in the research stage, it’s also when making the film and working with the actors. Making sure that any given scene or line of dialogue rings true and honest. So the answer to your question is yes, I’m super-paranoid about it.
How did you put together the music?
The music actually relates to your question of exploitation and the theme of the film. I worked with the same composers as “Maria Full of Grace” and they are not Albanian. But they’re very interested in world music. They did a score for a documentary about the Mexican beltway and the entire score was created from sampled sounds of construction. They were very excited to do for an Albanian film. We explored Albanian traditional music, and it immediately felt too typical. “Oh, how quaint, here’s this faraway land that’s got this ridiculous tradition.” So the music was also a search to find this balance between the traditional and the modern. There are Albanian instruments in the score but they’re not used in a traditional way. You might not even know that those instruments are in there.
How was learning Albanian?
Hard. I lived in Prague for a year and got fluent in Czech and I speak French, Italian and Spanish. Sadly, none of those helped me. Albanian isn’t related to any of those. It’s a fun challenge. I have my grammar book with me, it’s been a year and a half since I’ve been in the country and I have to brush up so I can introduce the film in Albanian. I can’t write poetry in Albanian but I can always make myself understood.
Have you stayed in touch with any of the isolated families that you met during the research stage?
Yeah. And they’ll be at the Albanian premiere. That’s one of the most important responses that I want to get. How it feels, watching the film, and whether it correlates to the experience that they had. On “Maria Full of Grace” there was one really helpful person who was in prison in the United States. I spent two long days in visitation rooms listening to his whole story of being a drug mule, and by the time the film was released in Colombia he had been released in prison and moved back. He took about twelve members of his extended family to the premiere, he was so excited. I made a point to take him out the next day and hear all of his responses to it. He said that throughout the entire film every time something felt real or true he was squeezing his wife’s hand. She said by the end of the screening her hand was black and blue. That’s the goal. That the film is in some way true to the experience that they had. So we’ll see what happens.