Monday, 20 August 2012

GFT programme note: The Forgiveness of Blood

When The Forgiveness of Blood was selected to represent Albania at the 84th Academy Awards, a vocal minority questioned the choice. In a letter to the Albanian National Centre of Cinematography (ANCC), filmmaker Bujar Alimani (whose own film Amnesty was one of three candidates to have been passed over) summarised the root complaint: though shot in Albania, in the Albanian language, with a predominantly Albanian cast and crew, The Forgiveness of Blood should not qualify as an authentic Albanian film due to key personnel – particularly Californian co-writer and director Joshua Marston – hailing from outside the Balkan state.[1]

Such controversy is fairly common in the Academy’s foreign language award nominee selection process: other high-profile films to have been disqualified or otherwise withdrawn in recent years include Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (due to insufficient Taiwanese production input), Rachid Bouchareb’s London River (for excessive English dialogue) and Michael Haneke’s Hidden (Caché) (submitted by Austria, but with dialogue in French; films must be in a language native to the submitting country to qualify). Indeed, Marston himself had already experienced a comparative snub in 2004, when his debut feature, drug-mule drama Maria Full of Grace (2004), was reportedly rejected as Columbia’s entry for similar reasons.[2] But in the case of The Forgiveness of Blood, its disputed heritage is made doubly interesting by the way it relates to the themes of the film itself. Of the initial decision to support its submission, head of the ANCC Artan Minarolli argued: ‘[Albanian cinema] is a cosmopolitan cinema that tries to survive through cultural exchange. In the past, Albania was totally isolated; today we try to find reality in cinema and to make up for the time we lost over the past fifty years.’[3] Insular tradition versus intercommunity harmony: the conflict that beset the film’s Academy Award chances also afflicts (in a more pronounced and dangerous fashion) its principal characters, locked in an ancestral feud that disrupts their freedom and threatens their lives. Who we are and where we come from, the film demonstrates in both its plot and its production, can affect our lives at a fundamental level.

The film opens with a seemingly innocuous act: a horse-drawn cart trundles through a quiet rural landscape, the riders stopping at the fore of the frame to remove rocks blocking their path. But it is soon apparent that this simple action has a provocative edge, as rival families trade barbed insults from opposite sides of a bar room, demonstrating deep-rooted mutual ignominy; the next time access to the pathway is disputed, a man is killed. The murder, importantly, occurs off-screen: we witness the preceding argument, in which the perpetrator is humiliated in front of his daughter Rudina (Sindi Lacej) and leaves with vengeance in mind, but not his subsequent return to the field armed with a knife. We only learn of the attack when Rudina’s brother Nik (Tristan Halilaj) is bundled into the back of a car by relatives concerned that he will be targeted for reprisal. During Nik’s journey back to the family home that will shortly become his prison, the camera stays hunched down in the vehicle’s footwell, its angle mimicking Nik’s fractional perspective. This alignment with the family’s teenage members is maintained throughout the film, with events largely depicted from Nik and Rudina’s fringe positions. They are involved in mediation debates only marginally, their experiences instead limited to the monotony of house arrest (Nik), and the difficulty in single-handedly providing for a family that has lost its main breadwinner (Rudina, forced to quit school to take up her father’s work).

By foregrounding Nik and Rudina, Marston and co-writer Andamion Murataj frame the central feud within a larger, thematic conflict: between tradition and modernity. The threat to Nik’s life is not arbitrary, but written into the kanun – the traditional Albanian laws still used in parts of the country. The kanun’s diktats include the concept of gjakmarrja­; the blood feuds that result in reciprocal killings from warring families. In a 2007 Washington Post article, law professor and kanun expert Ismet Elezi outlines the modern blood feud as follows: ‘A killing takes place, the victim’s family demands blood retribution, then the members of the killer’s family take refuge in their homes – which are considered inviolate under kanun – for at least forty days and seek forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted or a life is taken in retaliation, the feud ends. Otherwise, the isolation period can continue indefinitely.’[4] It is this sense of indefinite limbo that generates the film’s claustrophobia, as the children – Nik especially – bristle under, then rebel against, their enforced confinement. But this centuries-old code exists uneasily in a present-day context. In one notable scene, Nik receives a video message from his classmates via a smart phone, imprisoned by an ancient honour system, but connected to the outside world via 21st century communication technology; this contrast is later reversed, when Rudina travels into the city by horse-drawn cart, a line of cars and trucks queuing behind her and sounding their horns in frustration. Both examples juxtapose old and new, portraying a family trapped not only by, but in the past. The tension between future-facing youth and the shibboleths of their forebears is ever-present, as the teens endure an inherited conflict that precedes them by generations.

To return to the aforementioned Academy Award controversy, Alimani’s protest achieved its desired aims: the ANCC’s Oscar Committee relinquished, transferring their submission to Amnesty. For The Forgiveness of Blood – a film focused on the identities we are born into; on the immutability of bloodlines and the archaic legacies that can accompany them – the reversal seems unfortunate, but also rather apt.

Dr Christopher Buckle
Researcher and journalist
August 2012

[1] Nick Holdsworth (2011), ‘Albanian Oscar entry disqualified’, Variety, 9 October 2011, accessed 12/08 at
[2] Guy Lodge (2011), ‘Joshua Marston DQ’d (again) as foreign-language Oscar list hits 60’, Hitflix, accessed 12/08 at
[3] Holdsworth (2011)
[4] Jonathan Finer (2007), ‘Albania takes aim at a deadly tradition’, The Washington Post, 23 August 2007, accessed 12/08 at

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