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21st Century Teens, 15th Century Albanian Law: Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood

by Alexandra Marie Daniels

Through the lens of average teenage eyes, The Forgiveness of Blood captures the contradictions that have hindered Albania’s post-communist development. Specific in context yet universal in theme, Joshua Marston (director of the highly acclaimed 2004 film Maria Full of Grace) has created a high quality artistic production – that educates and powerfully brings us closer to the possibility that, just maybe, as cultures we are not as different as we often like to think.

Opening on February 24, 2012, The Forgiveness of Blood tells the story of Nik (Tristan Halilaj), a typical teenage boy. Fumbling awkwardly around his feelings for a young beauty at school and his future plans of opening an internet café in the Northern Albanian village where he lives, his dreams are crushed in an instant when a land dispute involving his father and uncle results in a neighbor’s death. According to a 15th century legal code, the Kanun, Nic’s family must pay retribution by never leaving their home. Nik and his little brother are targeted and risk their lives if they go outside. His sister Rudina (Sindi Laçej) must take over the father’s bread route to bring in income for the family.

For many, The Forgiveness of Blood will seem implausible in the 21st century. Yet for Albanians, Nik’s story is sadly far from uncommon. Currently, there are more than 2,800 Albanian families stuck in deadly blood feuds. Since the collapse of communism, the Kanun is creating a modern day dilemma. While only one blood feud killing was recorded during the 40 years of communist leadership, more than 9,500 Albanian males have been killed since 1992. The country is suffering from pride and tradition. Families are turned upside down. Futures and finances are threatened as the children can longer go to school and the fathers can no longer earn a living.

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Joshua Marston and learned that his inspiration for the film was from reading about these present day Albanian families stuck inside their houses. “I was struck by the contradiction,” he explained, “the juxtaposition between the traditional and the modern.”

Marston went on to fully immerse himself in his research. He read books, studied the language, and obtained a printed copy of the Kanun to read “the old laws.” Simultaneously, doors opened. “By virtue of telling people, when they [asked] ‘oh what are you working on? People would inevitably say, ‘oh I know someone who is Albanian,’ which was pretty unexpected.” He remarked that up to this point, he didn’t know anyone from Albania. During one of these instances Marston met his co-writer Andamion Murataj, an Albanian born filmmaker who had been living in the United States for fifteen years.

To best understand what the experience of modern day confinement was like, Marston travelled with Murataj to Albania in 2009. They met families living in isolation, teachers who homeschooled them, and mediators who negotiated the feuds. Through conversations with Albanian teenagers, Marston began to understand what it is like to grow up in Albania today. He chose to cast non-professional teenagers in the film and accessed their talent through improvisation and by tapping into what he describes as “universal emotions.” He shared, “on the face of it, you wouldn’t think that Albania had anything to do with your own life experience in the United States.” Marston took on the challenge to “make something that is specific and fascinating and maybe even removed from our daily experience and at the same time universal and relatable.”

Experiencing “one of those rare moments that felt like a lightening bolt, the movie came into being all at once in my head, of a story about a teenager who is completely modern… and then things go wrong and he is forced inside the house.” Marston asked himself the question, “What would happen if a kid was using a cell phone or playing a video game in his house because he was stuck in his house, because of a traditional blood feud?” As in reality, the film’s characters are living 21st century lives complete with smart phones, Facebook, video games and satellite television. The choice to tell the story from the point of view of a teenager, allowed Marston to illustrate fully this contrast between 21st century lives stuck in a 15th century culture.

Both in the film and in our conversation, I was fascinated by what Marston described as “this strange, unexpected gender reversal whereby because the women and girls are not targeted, they end up having to go out of the house, work, and support the family.” This phenomenon inspired the director to include the parallel storyline of Nik’s sister Rudina.

From working with the Albanian teens, Marston developed Rudina’s character. At one point, while listening to the girls complain about not being able to go to parties without their father’s and sometimes brother’s permission, he experienced “a crisis as a filmmaker” fearing that his subject matter was not specific to Albania. He thought, “this is just teenagers complaining about not getting permission to go to parties,” but then realized that it is a bit more complicated. Despite common coming-of-age experiences, The Forgiveness of Blood has to do with “Albania being in a specific moment in history where it is transitioning still from the end of communism, and being very patriarchal.” Again, returning to the theme of contrast, “In some ways it’s completely specific and in some ways it’s completely universal.”

The girls Marston worked with did not hold back when describing the challenges of growing up in Albania today. “There was really a sense of these girls chaffing under the patriarchy of the culture.” When he asked “what is the most difficult thing about being a teenager in Albania today?’ the girls’ hands would often shoot up first. “They would rattle off some sentence in Albanian that I could more or less understand, always there was the word ‘mentality’ embedded in the sentence.”

Marston explains that obstacles were discovered that the writers would not have come up with on their own. “I realized after we had already constructed that story line that actually it wasn’t just about the burden of [the girl] having to make money for the family…When we wrote it we started thinking ok…what are the obstacles to her? She doesn’t know the bread route so she might get lost. She’s not familiar with the horse, so she might be intimidated by the horse. She might take too long and be criticized for arriving late, or she might have to take a different route in order to avoid where the murder happened, and so she gets slowed down. And in all of that it never occurred to either my co-writer or to me, that the main obstacle is that she is a girl and girls don’t do this. It wasn’t until I was working with [Sindi Laçej] and we started talking about what it was that would be scary to her, that I realized that it was the fact of being a girl, out on the streets alone doing man’s work.”

The juxtaposition of traditional and modern, of freedom and captivity, is visually illustrated through Rob Hardy’s cinematography. Nik challenges his experience of confinement by building a gym on his roof and stepping out onto the porch. Protected by a dark, box-shaped horse cart, Rudina ventures out into the unknown. These experiences are represented emotionally – often without dialogue – by contrasting indoor and outdoor spaces, light and dark. It was in these unspoken moments that I realized The Forgiveness of Blood is an entirely relatable human story of growing up amid challenges we cannot control.

About the Author:
Alexandra Marie Daniels
is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. She has made three films with the director Bernard Rose, including The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Mr. Nice (2010) and has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. Alexandra is The WIP’s Arts, Culture, and Media Editor.

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