In A Foreign Land


Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

"At times profoundly moving, In a Foreign Land burns with indignation at the circumstances foisted on a generation who did what they were supposed to do but who have had little choice but to abandon the careers and futures they thought lay ahead of them."

An angry cry of indignation and a call for political mobilisation, with In a Foreign Land (En Tierra Extraña) - her seventh feature - director Icíar Bollaín makes her first foray into documentary, examining the emigration phenomenon among a generation of Spaniards - mainly university graduates in their 20s and 30s - who have been forced to leave Spain due to the economic situation. At least 20,000 of these emigrating Spaniards have ended up in Edinburgh, so it is appropriate that the film's UK premiere was as the opening film of the inaugural Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival. Bollaín - who is also a resident of the Scottish capital - considers the reasons behind this exodus, and explores the experiences of those who have found themselves in a foreign land for an extended period of time through necessity rather than active choice.

The participants are filmed solo or in pairs against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle - perhaps a symbol of potentially impenetrable cultural barriers, but also conceivably a representation of a safe haven. In deeply moving, dignified and articulate testimony, a series of highly qualified people - social workers, psychologists, teachers, and engineers among them - explain how they came to be working in hotels, kitchens, and takeaways thousands of miles away from their homes and families. The story of a limited employment market, short-term contracts with little stability and no clear future is a familiar one - similar circumstances can be found across Europe. But arguably in Spain the problems have been exacerbated by pre-existing problems relating to their political system in combination with severe austerity measures, and they have hit the young hard - youth unemployment in Spain currently hovers at 54 per cent (it is around 16 per cent in the UK).

While the interviewees talk of the erosion of confidence that occurs when you are stuck doing work that you are not proud of - and that doesn't stretch your capabilities - almost all of them also say that they have felt welcome in Scotland. The film emphasises that there can be a life-enhancing side to being immersed in another culture - there are those who have been in Scotland for longer and made it through the language barrier to develop their careers, such as the young man involved in events management at the Scottish Parliament.

But no matter where they find themselves on the scale of integration, there is the commonality of a deeply felt, impotent rage at being subjected to something that is not of their making. The director's contention is that despite what the politicians say - and Bollaín utilises news footage to give Spanish politicians enough rope to hang themselves with their disingenuous statements about enhanced employability - this mass emigration is not the same as that of Spain in the 1960s. The current phenomenon effectively deprives their homeland of a generation of skilled professionals and further impoverishes the country.

Alongside the news footage, Bollaín skilfully interweaves Alberto San Juan's one-man show - Portrait Of A Young Spanish Capitalist (Autorretrato de un joven capitalista español) - into the film, to create a recurring point of reference around which to organise the testimonies. Humorous, but also angry and educational, San Juan's monologue questions how Spain came to be in its current economic position and proffers some explanations with recourse to history, politics, and an account of how the West interfered behind the scenes in Spain's journey to democracy - and what Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González acquiesced to in the 1980s in order to get European membership for Spain. This acts as a carefully argued - although avowedly one-sided - counterbalance to the emotion of the testimonies, and as a call for mobilisation and participation in order to change Spanish politics.

At times profoundly moving, In a Foreign Land burns with indignation at the circumstances foisted on a generation who did what they were supposed to do but who have had little choice but to abandon the careers and futures they thought lay ahead of them. In calling Spain's political class to account, Bollaín gives a voice to those left outside - of both their country and political system - and at a time when poisonous polemics about immigration are sweeping Europe, her humane and impassioned documentary deserves to be seen far and wide.

Reviewed on: 17 Nov 2014
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Documentary about Spaniards forced by commerce to seek work abroad.

Director: Iciar Bollain

Year: 2014

Runtime: 72 minutes

Country: Spain


SSFF 2014
EIFF 2019

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