'In a Foreign Land' ('En Tierra Extrana'): San Sebastian Review

Courtesy of Turanga Films
Economic causes and emotional consequences are powerfully woven together in this unashamedly one-sided documentary

The experience of intra-European exile tackled by Spain’s highest-profile female director, as young Spaniards continue to leave their country in droves in search of a better life

For the past few years, the unemployment stats coming out of Spain have been damning. Half of the young people under 30, close to two million of them, cannot find a job. Forced out of Spain for economic reasons, they now have to pay the emotional consequences, and it’s these consequences that are powerfully, movingly and thoughtfully explored in Iciar Bollain’s In a Foreign Land. Part personal lament and part indictment of a Spanish political class widely seen as not having done the right thing by a whole generation, the film is powerful testimony to a difficult time that doesn't look like it's ending anytime soon. Land is likeliest to find a home in politically slanted festival sidebars.

“What have I done to deserve this?” asks one interviewee, a question that alert viewers will recognize as the title of Pedro Almodovar’s film from 30 years ago about a rural Spanish immigrant in Madrid. The film is set in Edinburgh, Scotland, where 20,000 of the 700,000 Spaniards who have apparently left their country over the last few years are living. (Interviewees are sometimes shot against the background of Edinburgh Castle, a symbol of solidity against the fragility of their own circumstances.) Mostly they’re people who’ve received an education that has led to nothing: As someone says, “We’ve done everything we were supposed to do.” People with degrees are working in dry cleaners or housekeepers, or are unemployed in Edinburgh also.

The interviews are intercut with live footage of actor Alberto San Juan delivering an entertaining monologue, plus footage on Spanish 20th century history from the left-wing perspective. We’re reminded that the current wave of Spanish exiles is redolent of that of the 1950s; at that time, most of the emigres moved to Germany and Switzerland and largely for the same reasons — but without the degrees so many have now. Sociologist Joaquin Garcia Roca chips in with the big political picture, delivered with the clarity of a university lecture.

The interviews, which are sometimes self-pitying  and sometimes searingly honest, are often highly quotable: “A country which can’t feed its children isn’t worth a damn,” says one interviewee. Says another: “Is having a good job worth it, when you don’t have the things in life that really matter?” And “the political foundations of Spain have never been solid," says another, absolutely correctly. Sharpest and truest of all is a speaker who says that “living abroad makes you feel like an abridged version of yourself.” It’s at this level of emotional consequences that In a Foreign Land is most successful, but it’s less successful at the level of social critique, where many complaints are forthcoming but no solutions offered.

Anyone sitting down to watch a film by the diehard socialist Bollain, whose best-known film is Even the Rain, knows that they won’t be getting the Fox News angle on things, and In a Foreign Land won't alter that impression. That said, in the name of balance, there are success stories: One of the interviewees has become a social events manager and another has become, slightly surreally, Scotland’s Bus Driver of the Year. Which does show, albeit ever so briefly, that not every exile has to remain at the bottom of the professional ladder.

Pascal Gaigne’s score is sweetly lyrical, particularly with the section called Life With an Objective, and underpins the air of general nostalgia: It’s interesting how people can feel so sad about leaving a country that has treated them so badly, but this script doesn’t go there. And this being a Spanish film and all, we also get to hear a powerful flamenco lament about how there is no greater suffering than having to move away from home, which sounds great — but isn’t actually true.

“You feel like a glove without its partner,” says one interviewee, and there are shots of an art collective hanging gloves on railings in protest around the city. It’s a nice idea, and it does add a little color and action to this largely static film, but it’s not necessary in a piece whose subjects have spoken so articulately and movingly about their plight. When you’ve seen tears running down a middle-aged woman’s face, you don’t need to see a glove on a fence.

Production companies: Tormenta Films, Turanga Films, TVE
Director: Iciar Bollain
Screenwriters: Iciar Bollain, Alicia Luna
Producers: Cristina Zumarraga, Iciar Bollain, Lina Badenes
Directors of photography: Lukasz Gasiorowski, Sergio Mangas, Iciar Bollain, Lukasz Kulec
Editor: Nacho Ruiz Capillas
Composer: Pascal Gaigne
Sales: Tormenta Films

No MPAA rating, 75 minutes