Filmmaker Joshua Marston, AM’94, examines
Colombian drug-smuggling from the inside out.
In a small, fluorescent-lit room in the bowels
of New York’s JFK airport, 17-year-old Maria faces off with
two suspicious customs agents. While they interrogate her about
drug smuggling, poking holes in her thin cover story, Maria, a slight
and stubborn Colombian girl and the protagonist of Maria Full
of Grace, calmly refuses to crack, despite the 62 pellets of
heroin stuffed in her stomach.
Like the film’s title character, Joshua
Marston, AM’94, is graceful under pressure. At a July 26 sneak
preview of Maria, a film he wrote and directed, Marston,
a political-science graduate who earned a New York University master’s
degree in filmmaking, deftly fields questions from the packed Old
Town, Chicago, theater, laughing and spinning anecdotes about bringing
his project to the big screen.
Wanting to approach his subject—narcotics
trafficking—from a fresh angle, Marston chose to “recount
the story from the bottom up.” Unlike much anti-drug propaganda,
which he believes demonizes smugglers, he filmed from the perspective
of someone “living the drug trade on a more mundane level.”
Low-level smugglers (or “mules”)
like Maria, he explains in an August 9 interview on public radio’s
Fresh Air, recruited in countries such as Colombia to transport
cocaine or heroin, must pass through an international obstacle course.
Their first challenge, after swallowing dozens of thumb-sized latex
packages with the help of topical throat anesthetic, is to board
the plane while avoiding local law enforcement, a “terror
in its own right.” From there mules fly right into the trenches
of the war on drugs, where they face a “phalanx” of
customs agents cruising for guilty passengers. Intercepted mules,
Marston continues, are taken to a small room where their bags are
searched; they’re frisked, possibly strip-searched, and interrogated.
Eventually customs agents will ask to X-ray them, another “tactic
of intimidation,” used, Marston says, to elicit confessions.
“If they find a trove of pellets in your stomach,” he
notes, you’re arrested under suspicion until “the call
of nature comes.”
Mules who make it through the customs gauntlet
still face the possibility that the pellets will succumb to stomach
acids and leak or break, releasing a deadly amount of drugs into
So why would anyone take such risks? Many assume,
Marston explains to the sneak-preview audience, that desperate poverty
is the sole motivator for potential mules, who can earn several
times their annual salary in one plane trip. But “there are
as many reasons for [smuggling] as there are people who are doing
it.” In addition to the lure of cash, Maria jumps at the opportunity
to escape her boring job, stifling family, and unimpressive boyfriend.
Marston knew if he focused only on the economic
factors, he “would end up with a movie of the week about a
young woman who is so desperate that she had to swallow drugs and
the violins would come out. That just wasn’t the movie I wanted
Instead he created the more nuanced character
of Maria, who began to form during Marston’s initial research,
when he spoke with a young Colombian woman he met by chance in New
York. Her story of traveling as a mule “was extraordinarily
captivating,” he says. “I had heard vague stories that
people did this—it was sort of like an urban legend—but
I had never actually imagined it from the inside.”
To pursue the story, Marston did more research
in New York, where he met Orlando Tobon, an accountant and travel
agent affectionately known as the mayor of Little Colombia. Impressed
with Tobon’s service to his Queens neighborhood (which includes
identifying and transporting the corpses of mules who have died
from accidental overdoses), Marston wrote his character into the
script. Tobon, playing Don Fernando, a local problem solver and
sage, helps Maria find her way once she arrives in New York.
Marston also spent time in Colombia, where he
found Catalina Sandino Moreno, the actress who plays the lead, after
auditioning 800 women in three months. Though he hoped to film the
first half of the movie in rural Colombia, political violence forced
the production to move to Ecuador—as if, he says, it weren’t
“audacious enough for an American to go to Colombia
to make a Colombian film.”
Still, the Spanish-language film was well received
in its intended native country. First Lady Lina Moreno de Uribe
invited Marston to screen it twice for assembled dignitaries, and
the country purchased a copy for educational purposes. In June a
17-year-old Colombian boy telephoned Marston to say he had been
scheduled to travel as a mule but the movie had changed his mind.
Maria has also made a splash worldwide,
winning awards at the Seattle, Berlin, and Sundance film festivals.
When an audience member gushes that his work is “just brilliant,”
Marston, with puffy hair and a humble green T-shirt, jokes that
accepting Sundance’s dramatic-competition audience award prompted
a “Sally Field moment: ‘They like us, they really like
us.” He earns a laugh from the crowd before going on to accept
a few more compliments—with grace.—A.L.M.