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 Half-In Half-Out

I’m looking at a calendar and I have just realized that Maria Full of Grace is slated to come out precisely nine years and eleven months since the day I moved to New York. They say that when you’ve lived here for ten years you can officially call yourself a New Yorker. But I am trying figure out whether I really feel like a “New Yorker.”

I find it hard to believe I have been in this city for almost ten years. As I write this I’ve just gotten back from another press trip. I’ll be here for maybe three weeks before I get on a plane again. In my fridge right now there’s half a jar of peanut butter, a quarter jar of jelly, a carton of milk that has gone sour, and an unopened bottle of champagne. That’s it. Seriously. My friends tease me constantly that I am never in New York. The truth is I have never really been able to stay put for very long since well before I went into production on the film.

Maria Full of Grace is my first feature. On one level, it’s a tense story about a seventeen-year-old girl from the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia who swallows a half-kilo of heroin in thumb-sized pellets and boards a plane for New York. But on another level, it is the story of a young woman who feels trapped by the confines of life in a small town and is looking for a way out—searching, as it were, for a situation where she feels more truly at home. Once Maria begins to move she keeps on moving throughout the film.

Pretty much the first question I always get asked by journalists, especially when they find out I am not Colombian, is how I got interested in this story. The implication is that the story seems far afield from who I am—me, a Jewish kid from L.A. who has lived in Berkeley, Paris, Chicago, Prague and now New York. I have, after all, never swallowed drugs and carried them on a plane to the U.S. And I’ve never been a seventeen-year-old girl in Colombia. But like Maria I am constantly moving, always looking for something new.

I move around because when I am in a new place my eyes are more widely open, my ears more sensitive. For me, filmmaking is about looking outward, listening to other people’s stories and then finding a way to translate them onto the screen. Researching the film was a long process of hundreds and hundreds of conversations with all sorts of people—from former drug mules in prison to women working in flower plantations in Colombia, from Customs inspectors at Kennedy airport to Colombian immigrants in Queens.

The result is that many Colombians who see the film comment that it feels like it could have been made by a Colombian. But the same Colombians sometimes say that while everything in it feels authentic and familiar, the style of cinematic realism is something foreign to them, not so common in Colombian films. So in a sense, I am Colombian but I am also not Colombian.

This half-in half-out feeling is something Colombian immigrants (and many other immigrants for that matter) have often related to me and which I made a point of putting in the film. There is a scene where one of the characters (Carla) describes the pain of not being able to be back in Colombia for a birthday but then immediately describes the pride of living in New York, where she can make enough money to send back home. The day we shot the scene (in the heart of the Colombian community in Queens) I came out of the apartment-set to find a Colombian man—about sixtyish, with pressed blue pants, a plastic shopping bag in one hand—standing in the hallway by the monitor. He lived in the building and had been on his way up to his apartment when he stopped to watch the scene and listen in on the dialogue through the open doorway. He pulled me aside and told me how much he related to the character’s ambivalence, living in this great, cold city, so far from “home.” And then he thanked me—for giving voice to this feeling, for giving it enough importance to put on screen. I will never forget that.

The film is finally finished now, and a month ago I traveled to Colombia for the premiere there. Standing in front of several hundred people, I told the audience (in my now Colombian-accented Spanish) that although I am not Colombian I have come to feel “un poco Colombiano.” Much to my surprise the audience instantly burst into applause. I was completely taken aback. As if my feeling of being Colombian were being confirmed, accepted. After so many years of working on this film, after all of my moving around I have found another home of sorts, in Colombia.

I don’t think I have ever felt quite that sort of embrace even here in New York. I came to the city almost a decade ago in order to make films and in spite of those ten years I still feel half-in half-out of being a New Yorker. Just as I am half-in half-out of being a little bit Colombian. It is a sort of condition I am coming to accept, this half-in half-out-ness. But I realize that I would have it no other way, for this is what crystallizes my vision and sharpens my hearing. It is what makes me fully at home, as a filmmaker.

 

Writer/director Joshua Marston's feature debut depicts one young woman's journey from a Colombian town to the streets of New York. Seventeen-year-old Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) lives with her family in a cramped house in rural Colombia and works stripping thorns from flowers in a rose plantation. A lucrative offer of a job involving travel—in fact, becoming a drug "mule"—changes the course of her life. Far from the uneventful trip she is promised, Maria is transported into the risky and ruthless world of international drug trafficking and her mission becomes one of determination and survival.