“Forgiveness of Blood”: Storytelling through art

This interview was originally published by Kosovo 2.0. Available here in English, Albanian, and Serbian. 

“The Forgiveness of Blood” opens with a pastoral scene set in northern Albania. A horse-drawn cart approaches a field, and a father and son clear stones that have been set to block their path. Nik, the teenage son, has dreams of becoming an Internet cafe owner. Rudina, his younger sister, wants to go to university. Both of their aspirations are cut short when their father and uncle get into an argument with their neighbor over a disputed plot of land. The argument escalates into a murder, and the laws of the 15th-century Kanun are thereby set in motion. Their uncle is arrested, and Nik and Rudina’s father goes into hiding. Nik is strictly forbidden to leave the house. If he does, the family of the dead man can, according to the Kanun, take his life. Rudina leaves school and takes over her father’s bread-cart business, while the blood feud slowly escalates.

“The Forgiveness of Blood” was co-written by Albanian filmmaker and screenwriter Andamion Murataj and American director Joshua Marston. In 2011, the film won a Silver Bear for best screenplay at the Berlin Film Festival. Kosovo 2.0 sat down with Murataj and discussed the complicated nature of modernity, tradition and representation.

A native of Albania, Murataj attended Tirana’s Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Shkoder during the turbulent 1990s. By 1997, all of Albania’s universities temporarily closed as the country fell apart in what came to be known as the Albanian Unrest. The fall of government-backed pyramid schemes led to the government’s fall, thousands of dead civilians, and thousands more who escaped the chaos of Albania by going abroad. Murataj left Albania through Greece, and landed in the U.S. where he continued his film studies. He wouldn’t come to Albania again until 2007, when work on “The Forgiveness of Blood” began.

Murataj met Marston in the U.S. and discovered they both had an interest in the complex nature of blood feuds. Marston’s previous feature film, “Maria Full of Grace,” pays careful attention to cultural detail and social context, and the same passion for authenticity is evident in “Forgiveness.” The two went to Albania and underwent a long process of observation and interviews on day-to-day life in Albania. “For a month we just observed the lifestyle, we went from Saranda to Shkoder, everywhere. The story lines were created later. It came together like a puzzle. We held 3,600 interviews and auditions and got a sense of what it means to be a teenager in Albania in 2009.”

The film’s story shows an Albania in transition between the traditions of the past (which are very much alive in the present), and the yearning for individual freedom. “Every period has its own spirit. Young generations express their worldviews differently, whether the issue is blood feuds or way of life. If for someone of, let’s say, our parents’ generation, honor is very important in terms of social status, but for younger generations it’s economic well-being.” Nik and Rudina’s goals are cut short by a world that demands they pay the price of family honor. Their story is that of countless other young people in Albania, a story of a society in flux between the old ways and the new.

“I knew the Albania of newspapers, and when I came I got to know the real Albania. The two reside in completely different worlds,” Murataj says. “For example, absolutely every school in Albania has computers. Maybe they don’t have electricity all the time, or heating, but there’s no school that doesn’t have a computer lab and smartphones in them. There are teenage girls who have three different phone numbers. The way young people communicate has surpassed older generations.”

The old divisions of labor also change, sometimes by choice, and — as is the case in “The Forgiveness of Blood” — sometimes by necessity. As Rudina’s character takes on her father’s role of breadwinner, she undergoes a transformation in terms of her authority within her family. “When she becomes a breadwinner, she automatically becomes a decision-maker.”

“The Forgiveness of Blood” is filmed in a stark, strictly naturalistic way, which Murataj says was an aesthetic choice, as opposed to having come from a sense of duty toward realism. “During the auditions, I would say that we aren’t making a movie with guns, mustaches and folk costumes. We wanted the voices of individuals, we wanted unique moments.” In a place as poorly understood as Albania, storytelling through art is one of the ways to break stereotypes about the country and its inhabitants. “Our passport to the world is art,” Murataj says.

Murataj’s latest film project, “Man of the House,” is still in development. When asked about the state of the film industry in Albania and the region, Murataj is hopeful. “There’s a new climate. The Balkans has had success, and it needs more support because there are great stories out there.” Murataj’s outlook is almost a strangely optimistic one, unusual to come across in a cultural scene that’s prone to complaint. Yet he is a living example of how films based on local themes and ordinary lives can break through to international audiences. According to Murataj, “Optimism is what pushes projects forward. If I wasn’t an optimist, I would have failed at the get-go.”

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