The Maria Full of Grace director talks about his new Berlinale competition film about Albanian blood feuds.

Joshua Marston takes his authenticity seriously. The New York-based writer-director spent a total of about nine months in Albania (over two years) working on his Berlinale competition title The Forgiveness of Blood, including a casting process that spanned 3 and a half months.

“We saw 3,000 kids, and several hundred adults,” Marston says of the process that took his team to many schools across Northern Albania looking for the right leads. “It’s always a ‘know it when you see it, love-at-first-sight’ kind of situation,” he says of finding his ideal actors.

The casting process was also useful in script development, as meeting those 3,000 teenagers was also “very much about finding out what it means to be a teenager in Albania today.”

While in Albania, he wrote journals when to share with his New York-based producer Paul Mezey to read while he was away, so they could be “right there on the same page.”

The Maria Full of Grace director co-wrote the film with Andamion Murataj, an Albanian-born filmmaker he met in New York.

The story is about a teenager brother (Tristan Halilaj) and sister (Sindi Lacej) whose lives are dramatically changed because of an Albanian blood feud - in fear of retribution, the young man has to go into hiding and the young woman has to help support the family.

They did a lot of rehearsals before shooting, so that the actors could believably play siblings.

After Maria premiered at Sundance and then came to the Berlinale, Marston says this one made a more natural fit for a Berlin world premiere. “With Maria, it was half set in the US,” he says. “For this, it’s 100% Albanian so it felt more European.” Fandango Portobello handles sales at the EFM and Janine Gold, Domenico Procacci and Eric Abraham serve as executive producers. Other backers include Artists Public Doman, Cinereach, Goteborg Film Fsetival Film Fund and New York State Council on the Arts.

Marston wants his second feature to stand on its own. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad people like Maria, but this isn’t a sequel,” he says, adding that there is no thriller-type moment like Maria’s swallowing bags of cocaine. “I feel very proud of the film, it’s a very different movie with a different rhythm.”

Marston says he doesn’t think it’s his role as a filmmaker to spearhead change about the situation of the centuries-old tradition of blood feuds in much the same way he wasn’t trying campaigning about drug mules with Maria Full of Grace. Still he hopes that his film could “stimulate debate” — since 1992, 9,500 men have been killed in blood feuds. He adds: “I’m not passing judgement on blood feuds, it’s a cultural legacy. But It’s tragic what’s happening with these kids.”