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Joshua Marston acknowledges he's never been a 17-year-old Colombian girl. But that doesn't mean he can't tell a story about one. He's even prepared an explanation for those who are quick to criticize him for making Maria Full of Grace, his touching drama about a Colombian girl who traffics heroin to the United States. "If an artist is perpetuating myths or stereotypes, then you have a case against them," he argues. "But if the filmmaker does their homework, channels other people's voices, and the final piece is convincing and organic, then so much the better."
The first draft of the script, however, written in 48 hours, "was packed with extraneous speechifying about the drug wars and no character development," admits the 35-year-old Marston, who received a master's degree in political science at the University of Chicago before defecting to NYU film school. To avoid the clichés of the drug thriller and give the material an emotional reality, he spent the next two years researching drug mules and Colombian daily life.
Making their way into the screenplay were firsthand accounts of drug traffickers forcing dozens of 10-gram heroin pellets down their throats and a painfully homesick Colombian woman who, for the sake of her baby, refused to return to Bogotá. Marston also visited workers on South American rose plantations and spoke with young Colombian women ("without being weird about it") to understand their point of view. "It was a very detailed and rigorous series of conversations," he says.
Such thoroughness, reveals producer Paul Mezey (La Ciudad, Our Song), put to rest any doubts he had about collaborating with the first-timer. "More than anyone I've ever worked with," he says, "here is a guy who never makes any assumptions and is always going to every length to understand every detail."
But Marston's passion for authenticity hit a wall when the $3 million production couldn't get insurance from HBO Films to shoot in Colombia. "It was a huge disappointment," he says. "We contemplated forgoing this major financing coup and said to ourselves, 'Fuck it, we'll find $500,000, get a 16mm camera and shoot it in Colombia.' " Eventually, they made a compromise with their financier: After Costa Rica "just wasn't right," and an attempted coup d'état erupted in Venezuela (HBO's backup), the production landed in Ecuador.
"I was embarrassed and mortified to say to Colombians, 'I want to make a movie about Colombia, but I can't get permission to shoot in your country,' " recalls Marston. "Ironically, the Colombians said, 'Of course you can't come here; you'd be crazy to shoot here.' "
Since showing the film, Marston feels vindicated. In Colombia, where the film was released in April, natives embraced the movie, and at the Sundance Film Festival (where Maria Full of Grace won an Audience Award), North Americans seemed to forget the film was in Spanish. "There's a certain pleasure in having created a film where people get so drawn in that they spend two hours feeling as if they're Spanish speakers," says Marston. "And the political outcome of that experience is you have sympathy for Maria. And this character, who would otherwise be demonized through drug-war propaganda, becomes humanized."
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