Interview with the Director and Young Stars of Forgiveness of Blood

What's better than sitting down for an interview with director Joshua Marston? The answer is having the chance to interview him alongside the talented young stars of his new feature film The Forgiveness of Blood.  I chatted with Mr. Marston, Tristan Halilaj, and Sindi Laçej on Saturday, February 18, 2012. Here are some excerpts from that conversation. The movie opens on Friday, February 24, in New York and Los Angeles.

The motion picture tells a fictional account of an Albanian family thrust into a blood feud. They have to endure the repurcussions stemming from an ancient legal code that requires, as payback when someone is charged with taking someone else's life, that the males of the family of the accused are placed under house arrest with the risk of death following the "eye for an eye" mandates of the 15th century Kanun. I asked Marston what stories resonated with him as he was researching the project and what inspired him in the first place to make The Forgiveness of Blood.

"It wasn’t actually the stories of the feuds themselves that I was getting or that were interesting to me," he answered. "I realized that what I was most interested in was the experience of what it was like to be stuck inside the house. What was it like to be part of this situation?"

Some of those real experiences found their way into the dramatic fictional story written by Marston and his screenplay collaborator and co-producer Andamion Murataj.  Marston's eyes glimmered as he recalled one of those inspirations. "The horse and cart that Rudina uses were an actual horse and cart from an actual guy who actually sells bread," he said, and revealed that the gentleman ended up with a role in the film as the person who purchases Klinsmann the horse.

Marston continued remembering his early encounters with him, "I thought it was interesting, the idea of this guy in a horse-drawn cart using a cellphone. And it wasn’t until we were well into making the movie and we were doing research, more specifically about his line of work, I went back and I rode in the cart with him, and all of a sudden he tells me a story of a moment when suddenly some family member of his stopped him on his route...and said, 'Someone in your family has killed someone else, you have to get out of there and get in the car!' They made him, like Nik, get down in the backseat and drove him home, and his wife had to take over the bread route...Those were the fascinating stories, more than the 'he said, she said' of how a feud actually got started."

When I mentioned the juxtapositions in the movie that showcased the crossroads that Albania is facing, the rural versus the urban, the oral traditions versus modern technology, people on horse-drawn carts with cellphones, livestock alongside mopeds, Marston chuckled.

"We didn’t organize that!" he said, referring to the scene at the beginning of the film that showed an impromptu game of soccer as young men rode by on motorized bikes, with cattle roaming within arms' reach. "We set up that field and they were playing soccer, I knew I wanted mopeds, and local kids came with their motorcycles, and pretty much it was this crazy free-for-all. We were rolling the camera and in the middle of the shot all of a sudden a guy came through the middle with his cows just trying to get to his field!" And the cameras kept rolling!

"But yes," Marston acknowledged, his tone becoming more serious. "It’s the fact that those contrasts exist in Albania that’s interesting to me. And I think that’s part and parcel of the fact that even twenty years after Communism you can say that Albania is still going through a transition." He confessed feeling a bit self-conscious as he said it, because he didn't want to sound like an American imposing his worldview or passing judgment. His goal was to present an honest visual documentation of the circumstances, and the honesty comes through in the performances of his Albanian cast who were living it.

I turned to Tristan and Sindi who, as young Albanians themselves, can see the cultural conflict firsthand. I asked if they felt pulled on both sides, by the older traditions and the temptations of the modern world.

Tristan answered that blood feuds are "diminishing time by time, but it still persists."

Sindi pointed out how this went beyond a dramatic, cinematic story, impacting real lives. "To those families that we went to create our characters, we saw this," she said. "They’re in isolation for maybe five years, ten years...and the kids didn’t want this. They were playing with videogames at home. If you ask them, they would say that 'We just want this to stop, that’s the only thing, we don’t want to know how or when,' just they didn’t want to continue this."

"It’s also important to say that there isn’t one Albania," Marston pointed out. "There are a lot of Albanias, and for me that was very true in Sindi’s experience. There was a moment when we were preparing the film and I said to Sindi, 'You must find a family as a reference' and it became a thing with her parents to find someone and they did an incredible job of finding a family that was living in a smaller village, and Sindi’s family lives in a city. I think she came back from that experience with her eyes very wide and I think even for Sindi it was really interesting to realize that there was a girl her same age living maybe 30 kilometers away who can have such an incredibly different life, such an incredibly different experience. And that was in the same country!"

Sindi agreed that meeting other Albanian girls as part of her research was a life-changing experience. "Since I was born and live in the city, I know that girls in villages don’t have the same life," she said. The stories they shared with her really surprised her. "And that helped me, you know, because when I was rehearsing with Josh or during my auditions, I was Sindi, I was the city girl, but they didn’t want the city girl, they wanted the village girl...So meeting these girls helped me."

Such dedication to character-building and truth in storytelling resulted in powerful on-screen performances. It's a testament to the filmmaker and his cast and crew that in a movie in which violence is such an important part of the tale, it does not need to resort to gratuitous violence to make its point. There is suspense and emotional energy from beginning to end.  Even what would seem to be the key scene of the movie, the fight that leaves one man dead, one man arrested, and the other in hiding, it is left up to the audience’s imagination. I asked Marston if he talked to the actor, Refet Abazi, who plays the father accused of murder, about the choice he made, how to play it, how much ambiguity to convey.

The director explained, "I didn’t discuss it with Tristan and Sindi so much, but with Refet I certainly described the most essential aspect of what I imagined happened. In other words, how the actual killing took place, because what was most important for me was that he should feel honestly that he was defending himself, that he was not the aggressor, that he should feel legitimate in what he did, and that he feels he is being genuine when he says he was protecting his family’s honor."

Refet Abazi brings that sense of genuineness to the patriarchal character of Mark, the father whose actions lead to a chain of events that his entire family is forced to endure. In the hands of a lesser performer, the nuances of the role might have been lost, but Abazi presents a noble figure whose every appearance on screen makes the audience sit up and pay closer attention. Marston agreed that Abazi is one of the major strengths of the movie, reiterating that "he's an amazing actor."

Abazi's presence was all the more impactful off-camera, where his experience helped shape the work by the younger actors who were making their film debuts. "Refet was instrumental in helping this situation," said Marston. "Because both he and the actress who plays the mother, Ilire Vinca Çelaj, are acting professors at their universities, their local academies, so they have a lot of experience working with new actors, kids who don’t have experience. They had experience with acting exercises, with how you begin to talk about the improvisation process."

Much of that improvisation was a tool to help the actors understand their characters' relationships with each other. When the cameras rolled, most of the action and dialogue was on the page. Marston immersed himself in Albanian culture to fully understand and be faithful to the story he wanted to tell. How difficult was it, I asked, to get some of those words and ideas, like “besa,” understood on film so that it would be a universal concept?

"That was a very specific challenge," he conceded. "I wanted the movie to play for both an American audience and an Albanian audience, so I didn’t want them to stop and explain things that an Albanian audience would already know. And I wanted the characters to speak in an honest way. Albanians don’t stop and explain the Kanun, everyone knows what the Kanun is. So it was about constructing a situation or dialogue where the use of the word Kanun would enable the audience to just figure out what the Kanun must probably be. And it was the choice, for example, to capitalize Kanun, and it’s the choice to leave 'besa' the way it is and put it in italics. You know I could have translated 'besa' to the word 'truce' in English, but as you know, the word 'besa' has many different meanings. It seemed richer to leave it in Albanian."

The cast managed to not only deliver their lines with conviction and believability, but also offer meaning in even the silent moments when no words were spoken.  I could sense, for example, the wheels turning in Nik's mind in that chilling scene when he was playing with a rifle while his younger brother was watching a videogame.

"We just had a lot of talking about our character," said Tristan, describing the process. "We were very focused on the psychology of our character, on what he’s doing now in his house. He’s alone and he doesn’t know what to do. And these are things that go through your mind – 'And now, and now, what to do, and now, and now.'"

As I mentioned in my review, it was as if Nik was trapped not only in his house, but also in the confines of his own body. Like a caged animal yearning to be free, his eyes showed a soul pacing back and forth, screaming for justice, begging for liberty.

Both Tristan and Sindi relied on the contacts they made with other Albanians as part of their character preparation to channel the emotions felt by Nik and Rudina. "As Sindi said, we went to families that had this problem, these blood feuds," Tristan continued. "That helped very much for us to create our character. Especially one guy, he was 18 years old, but his family started a blood feud when he was just three years old. He spent fifteen years in his house. Talking with him helped me very much to create that psychology of my character. And of course, talking with Josh."

"I remember one scene," Sindi said, "I go and sell bread. I met a girl, she’s always in my mind, everything came natural, I just took the bread and her words were running through my head, the girl and the families I met. I don’t know, everything was just like a cycle. I wasn’t thinking on my own, but these memories came to me while I was trying to do that."  She remembered all those real village girls she had met and hoped that her portrayal of Rudina rang true to their life experiences. "So listening to them, feeling their pain, that’s what came through my mind."

Their performances were impressive, especially coming from such young actors with no previous acting experience or professional training. I mentioned to Marston how certain parts of acting can be taught -- acting method, body language, vocalization -- but Tristan and Sindi had a tremendous believability that came through their eyes. Marston finished my thought -- "That part you don’t teach."

When Joshua Marston left Albania after the production was complete, did he feel a bit like Nik at the end of the movie?  Would he go back?

A hearty laugh emerged from everyone in the room, as he answered, "I knew I was coming back to show the film. I’m still waiting for my Albanian passport to arrive in the mail."

He then grew serious again and continued, "I think the exciting thing for me about Albanian cinema is the new generation. We had a lot of people working on the film who had just finished film school or who were still in film school and they had an incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm. And we became very close."

I was pleased to hear that Tristan and Sindi would continue to pursue acting careers. "After the movie, I started to study acting," said Tristan. "I went to Tetovo, Macedonia, my professor is Refet Abazi, the one who played my father in the movie, so now we’re doing the second part, he’s the professor of acting and Nik is his student. The Forgiveness of the Professor!"

"While we’re acting I feel so free," added Sindi. "It’s like during that time I’m not anymore Sindi, I’m that character, I’m living the life of that character, and that’s so exciting. Even though it’s sometimes ten hours or more to shoot, it’s fun."

What view of Albanians did Marston come away with after this experience?

"I think the thing that most impressed me about Albania is the level of hospitality," the director answered. "Because for the entire time that I was in Albania making this film I was a guest in their country. The fact that I was able to come into people’s houses, ask all these questions, listen to all these stories, be trusted with these stories, and I’m able to make this movie -- all while being served very good rraki! -- was really a tremendous experience."

Marston finished his interview with a story, like so many of those marvelous stories that inspired him in the first place. "There was one moment when we were driving on the main highway when I saw a village and I said, 'That looks like more or less the size of the town that I imagine the story taking place. Let’s just drive through the town.' We drove through, and stopped, and I got out of the car and started talking to someone who was there on the road, and five minutes later we’re in his house. We spent the next three hours as he told us all about his family history and all of these stories. He was someone that we continued to be in touch with all the way up until the shooting of the film. That sort of welcoming made an enormous impression upon me."

For a free electronic transcript of the entire interview, please email your request to