Below, writer/director Joshua Marston ("Maria Full of Grace") shares a scene from his latest drama, "The Forgiveness of Blood." Sundance Selects opens the film in select theaters February 24.
What's It About
Winner of the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at the Berlin Film Festival, the powerful second feature from Joshua Marston tells the story of 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 small internet business. His world is upended when his father becomes entangled in a dispute that leaves a fellow villager murdered.
According to a centuries-old code of law known as the Kanun, Nik’s family owes a life in return. Nik finds himself the prime target and becomes confined to home while his younger sister Rudina (Sindi Laçej) is forced to leave school and take over their father’s business. Marston transports us into a world rarely seen on screen, where tradition and modernity clash putting young lives in the balance.
Behind the Scene
Of all the scenes in the film, this is the first where we get a glimpse of the archaic Albanian rules system that is the Kanun, while also setting up that this will be a story about a kid who is caught between boyhood and adulthood. One of the biggest challenges of the scene was to convey to a non-Albanian audience that there is this set of very specific rules governing blood feuds and that those rules are subject to interpretation. I didn't want the film to stop to explain things and I wanted the mood and the debate to feel authentic.
To that end, the family friends in this scene who discuss the Kanun and what the family owes are played by actual mediators whom I interviewed in the course of researching the film. These are local, respected elders who have years of experience interpreting the traditional law and applying it to feuds.
The dialogue for the scene was developed with them — and many other mediators — through conversations where I would ask, "What aspect of the killing would become relevant if, as a friend of the family of the accused, you were looking for loopholes in the Kanun?"
For example, the Kanun provides that if you kill someone defending your ability to provide for your family, then you are exempt from owing blood. On the other hand, you are responsible for the well-being of a guest as long as he is in your home; if someone were to come in and kill your guest then you, as host, would, de facto, be in a feud with the family of the murderer.
Casting real mediators was not easy. You can't just call these guys in for an audition and expect them to perform naturally. So we we invited about eight of the mediators whom we'd interviewed in researching the script to come advise us about the scenario of the film. The idea was to create a similar sort of debate to what's in the film and see who was the most lively and interesting.
Of course, as soon as word got out about the meeting, no one wanted to be left out. When the day finally arrived for the audition, we had about 30 mediators around a long table in a cafe, each one puffing himself up and pontificating on the most esoteric aspects of the Kanun.
Once it came to shooting the scene, we kept the camera entirely in one corner of the room — the corner where Nik is standing — put a long lens on it and filmed their discussion as if we were eavesdropping on it. Some of the dialogue is scripted (to be sure to capture elements of the Kanun I definitely wanted to convey to the audience) and some of it is drawn from on-camera improvisation in which they debated various points of the Kanun. All that remained was to add cigarettes and raki (the local grape brandy) and the scene began to take shape.