I have been following the production of director Joshua Marston's critically acclaimed Albanian film, The Forgiveness of Blood (Falja e Gjakut), and truly thought this could be the contender I had long awaited to shine a spotlight on the country of my heritage and spark investment in its young motion picture industry.
It won the Silver Bear Award for best script at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival. It has received rave reviews for its performances (by an all-Albanian cast), its story (co-written by Marston and Albanian screenwriter Andamion Murataj), and its production values (filmed totally in Albania and created by a predominantly local Albanian crew).
The primary criteria for a movie to receive a Best Foreign Language Film nomination by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is that it must be a feature-length movie produced outside the U.S. and it must contain mostly non-English dialogue. Other, more specific, rules dictate that the production crew must be mainly indigenous to the native country that it portrays and that the movie should reflect cultural and ideological aspects characteristic of its representative nation. The Forgiveness of Blood is completely in the Albanian language and deals with a powerful and emotional storyline about youngsters whose lives are thrust into a blood feud because of the actions of their elders. The plot is uniquely Albanian, but at the same time very universal because of the talent of Marston and his team.
Given all of that, and considering that Marston's previous noteworthy movie, Maria Full of Grace, was recognized by the Academy with a nomination for Best Actress for its star Catalina Sandino Moreno, the odds seemed to be in favor for The Forgiveness of Blood to receive some recognition at this year's high-profile Oscar awards. Yet, it was disqualified from contention after a complaint by Bujar Alimani, an Albanian director whose own well-made film, Amnesty, was in consideration for the coveted award submission. What should be seen as an abundance of great motion pictures that bring public awareness to Albania and its artistic community instead has become a battle to earn that lone national spot and try to make history by winning that iconic golden statue.
As reported in Variety, the argument by Mr. Alimani that there was insufficient local Albanian involvement in The Forgiveness of Blood in certain key creative positions led the Academy to rule that it was not eligible to represent Albania in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Although Marston is indeed an American-born director and a few other members of the production team are not Albanian (such as cinematographer Rob Hardy and editor Malcolm Jamieson), it has been disheartening to see the film excluded and not lauded for its achievement as an example of Albanian cinema at its finest.
When the 63 movies in contention were announced, Amnesty was one of them. Alimani's unflinching drama follows the story of a woman whose husband is in prison because of gambling debts and what happens to her after a new Albanian law allows monthly conjugal visits.
Even though The Forgiveness of Blood would have been a superb entry in the Academy Award competition, I do not believe that Alimani's motives were completely self-serving to win his movie the accolades instead of his competitor. His statement justifying his opposition to Marston's film representing Albania seems sincere: "My protest was not for personal purposes, but because I feel that Albania has cinematographers who can be represented at a world level; selecting my film Amnesty as the official Albanian nomination gives hope to young moviemakers in Albania and honors the work of all my staff."
The nomination of The Forgiveness of Blood would arguably have also brought hope and honor to aspiring Albanian artists. It is an Albanian story with a strong Albanian cast of actors, including Refet Abazi, Tristan Halilaj, Sindi Lacej, and Ilire Vinca Celaj, all of whom deserve to see their hard work recognized in a movie that is undoubtedly Albanian.
A disappointed Marston was quoted in various media, including The New York Times, strongly defending his film as a true representation of Albanian cinema: "The film (The Forgiveness of Blood) is made by Albanians, in Albania, about Albania, and in the Albanian language. And yet a great film like (Aki) Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, which was shot in France with a French cast and a French story, qualifies as Finnish? And As If I Am Not There, which was shot in the Balkans and is in Serbo-Croat with a cast from that region, qualifies as Irish? It’s absurd."
The final nominations for the 84th Academy Awards will be announced early morning on Tuesday, January 24, 2012. (The ceremony, hosted by Eddie Murphy, will take place on Sunday, February 26, 2012.) I will be rooting for Amnesty to be one of the finalists, since it will be a huge accomplishment by a talented Albanian director for his first feature-length film.
But if it isn't nominated (and if it defies the odds and earns a top five nomination but doesn't win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film), I will think about The Forgiveness of Blood and dream of what could have been.
Regardless of the controversy, the high level quality delivered by the cast and crew of both The Forgiveness of Blood and Amnesty proves that Albanian cinema has come a long way and is on the verge of achieving the spotlight and investment from the rest of the world that it fully deserves. Hopefully, this incident will not deter anyone from embracing Albania as a rich source of story ideas, locations, and (above all else) talent for future films that can capture the imagination of movie fans around the globe.