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Williamsburg writer-director Joshua Marston is opening a lot of eyes these days to the softer side of drug smuggling.

While Americans are familiar with more militant phrases like "war on drugs," the media rarely provides a glimpse into the social or financial variables that might tempt a person to be a part of the drug trade.

In his first feature film, "Maria Full of Grace," which is being released in theaters this month, Marston tells the tautly paced story of an appealing, feisty, 17-year-old girl who yearns for a way out of her sweatshop-like job in a flower plantation and cramped home which she shares with four generations of her family.

Marston, 35, told GO Brooklyn this week that he was inspired to make the film after he heard a first-hand account of drug smuggling from a Colombian woman in the United States who had risked her freedom and her life for the big money that becoming a drug "mule" promises.

"Actually, I thought, ’This is quite a compelling story,’ and I started thinking about it, taking notes and researching. Then I wrote my first draft," said Marston. He said the movie was not just influenced by that one woman’s tale, but by those told by many Colombians who have swallowed pellets of heroine in order to sneak them through customs.

He said the journey from the first draft of the script to final cut was five long years. Over that time the writer-director went to the same great lengths that a documentary filmmaker might attempt in order to make his utterly engrossing, realistic fiction film.

"I had a lot of conversations over time," he said. "I spoke to people in jail here and in South America. I also spent a bit of time in JFK [International Airport in Queens] with customs inspectors and watching them work."

A harrowing moment in the film takes place in JFK, when Maria, played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, is questioned by customs inspectors who pressure her to allow them to X-ray her torso. The game of chicken is excruciating to watch because the audience knows that Maria’s belly is uncomfortably full of 62 large pellets filled with heroin that could leak and kill her - not to mention her unborn child.

While this interrogation and search may be dehumanizing, it’s just the latest in a series of many humiliations that the young girl has already suffered. Moreno delivers a sympathetic performance that hinges on her inherent decency and commitment to her family that makes this risky venture necessary.

In February, Moreno won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival, for her performance in this film.

To add to the realism of "Maria Full of Grace," Marston wrote the script in Spanish, which he claims is his fourth language. He even encouraged the Colombian cast to collaborate with him on the script.

"I’m not, nor have I ever been, a Colombian 17-year-old girl," said the ever-serious, soft-spoken Marston. "I knew I would be reliant on my actors to fill in a lot of blanks in the script in terms of characters, as well as how they were talking. That’s the reason why I cast them. Aside from being good actors, they had their own background as Colombians, and the region where the characters were from, and they could draw from that knowledge."

Marston’s insistence on Spanish with English subtitles was turned down by many studios before HBO saw the script. The cable company is distributing the film with Fine Line Features, and it seems their intuition was right because the film won the Dramatic Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

"When I showed up at Sundance, I had never shown the finished film to anyone, and I was now screening it for 1,200 people - and it was terrifying," recalled Marston. "Normally the Audience Award is given to a comedy or a feel-good movie, so the idea that it went to a difficult, dramatic film was especially gratifying."

In addition to being filmed on location in Ecuador (in lieu of Colombia, which was not practical in the fall of 2001 because of political instability and violence), the film has scenes in Jackson Heights, Queens, a neighborhood with a large population of Colombian immigrants. It’s there that Maria meets Don Fernando, a travel agent who acts as an advisor for the community’s new arrivals and a liaison with local officials. Maria needs his help to find another drug mule that she believes to be murdered.

Marston wrote this character into the script after meeting Orlando Tobon, "The Mayor of Little Colombia," who came to play Don Fernando and be an associate producer on the film. Don Fernando is instrumental in helping her efforts on behalf of the missing courier. In reality, Tobon has repatriated the bodies of 400 Colombian drug mules who died in their journeys to America.

"That was really in the late ’80s and ’90s, at the height of the smuggling," explained Marston. "But I believe he just did another one just last week He’s very open to the subject and felt very passionate about it. He was generous enough to let me sit in his office and observe."

The gritty realism and tension in the film is also a product of director of photography Jim Denault’s handheld camerawork.

"Like most director-DP relationships, we watched a lot of films together and the key phrases that came up over and over again for us were ’immediate’ or ’organic,’" said Marston. "The film should feel authentic and real. One film that was a reference for us, ’Our Song,’ was also shot by Jim."

It’s clear that in making "Maria Full of Grace," Marston felt a responsibility to the many Colombians who shared their personal, painful stories with him.

"The enjoyment of this work is that it reaches people and touches them and affects them," he said. He recalled a 60-year-old Colombian man who was watching a scene being shot from a hallway.

"He said, ’I completely relate to what that character is saying. Thank you,’" said Marston. "He was thanking me for making this film. It was a very moving moment for me to know I was getting everything right."

"Maria Full of Grace," directed by Joshua Marston, opens at the Cobble Hill Cinemas [265 Court St. at Douglass Street in Cobble Hill, (718) 596-9113] on July 30. Mondays through Fridays before 5 pm; Saturdays and Sundays prior to 2 pm; and all-day Tuesdays and Thursdays, tickets are $5. Some restrictions apply. Cobble Hill Cinemas accepts MasterCard and Visa. Check listings for other theaters.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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