American filmmaker Joshua Marston knew from the beginning that making his second feature "The Forgiveness of Blood" in Albania would be a challenge. The film, which received a Silver Bear for screenwriting at the Berlin Film Festival, depicts a family feud between two neighboring families in the southeastern European country. In an effort to make the film as authentic to its locale as possible, Marston wrote the script with Albanian Andamion Murataj and says he hired as many Albanian crew and cast members as possible.
But in the end it wasn't enough for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which deemed the film ineligible for the foreign-language Oscar race because it had extensive participation from non-Albanians. The academy has forced the Albanian film committee to choose another film as its official choice for the foreign-language category, and it selected Bujar Alimani's "Amnesty."
The move has frustrated Marston, who when reached by phone in New York on Thursday afternoon said it is impossible to film in Albania without using crew members from other nations.
“In Albania, there isn't a big film industry so all the films shot there bring in crew. Every movie made in Albania uses a DP [director of photography] from outside the country, same is true of editors, and sound mixers. You can’t judge whether the film is Albanian based on the crew list. We tried to employ as many Albanians as we could."
Marston did have one Albanian heading a department -- the costume designer. Marston argues that in order to offset the fact that he's not Albanian, he relied on creative participation from lower-level Albanian crew members. "For example, the production designer was more reliant on all the people in his department, creatively, to make sure that things looked and felt Albanian.”
Mark Johnson, a producer who heads up the Foreign Language Committee at the academy, says that while he feels for Marston's plight, there are strict rules in place to ensure that countries don't try to game the system.
“In a perfect world, this category wouldn’t exist and it wouldn’t matter what language the film is in," said Johnson. "But it's an imperfect world and we have to have some rules in place.”
The committee, he says, places particular emphasis on the nationality of the film's director.
“We believe that the director is the most important creative element in making a film and we give enormous weight to the nationality of the director," said Johnson, who is currently in Northern California working on Curtis Hanson's surf movie "Mavericks." "In the abstract, if it were just a director who wasn’t from the submitting country but all the other key creative controls were local artists or filmmakers, there’s a good possibility we would have accepted that film.”
Alas, that was not the case with "The Forgiveness of Blood," which IFC Films will unveil in the U.S. later this year. Not only is Marston from the United States but his producer, Paul Mezey, is as well. Marston's collaborator Murataj, who worked closely with Marston on the project since its inception, received a co-producer credit on the film, but the academy only recognizes the full producer credit.
Marston said that Artan Minarolli, head of the Albanian National Center for Cinematography, had a few lengthy conversations with the academy to ensure that choosing "Forgiveness of Blood," which was shot entirely in Albania, in the Albanian language, would fulfill the foreign-language requirements. Minarolli did not return call for comment.
Said Marston: "I don't know if the academy realizes how frustrated people in Albania are. They are sad and disappointed and disenchanted with the process."
Once the country's choice was ruled ineligible,the members of Albania's film committee reconvened and chose Alimani's "Amnesty." Alimani had previously written a letter to the academy decrying his nation's film choice of "Forgiveness," arguing that an American's film should not be eligible as the country's selection.
Johnson said Alimani's letter didn't influence his committee's decision.
It's the second such experience for Marston. His debut effort, "Maria Full of Grace," was chosen by Colombia as its entry in 2004, but it was also ruled ineligible. He said he finds the rules dogmatic.
“I don't understand why the academy is in the business of adjudicating the citizenship of a film. Why can’t the submitting countries be given the authority and autonomy to decide for themselves what films best represent them? Why would it be so threatening to the process of the academy to let that happen?”
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Photo credit: Joshua Marston at the Toronto International Film Festival. Credit: Aaron Harris/Getty Images