Icíar Bollaín’s Spanish drama Take My Eyes (2003) is a masterpiece of modern Spanish cinema, interweaving political and humanist concerns so closely that they seem inseparable. A lower-middle-class housewife gives her abusive husband another chance after he agrees to take part in anger-management counseling, and though the wife might seem like the more sympathetic character, Bollaín and cowriter Alicia Luna dare to present both spouses as victims of the social order (the husband comes to realize that his rage stems from his lack of social mobility and his need to maintain a traditional patriarchal household). Bollaín, who acted in films for more than a decade before she started directing, conveys her social observations primarily through nuances of character, yet her delicacy with the actors never compromises the toughness of her message.
With In a Foreign Land, Bollaín successfully transposes the strengths of her dramatic features to the documentary form, delivering a sharp analysis of Spain’s ongoing economic crisis and a rousing critique of the neoliberal reforms that caused it. But, as with Take My Eyes, she’s chiefly concerned with how economic forces shape the way people feel about themselves and relate to others. Foreign Land begins as a report on the estimated 20,000 Spanish immigrants now living in Edinburgh, Scotland, mainly because of Spain’s decade-long spike in unemployment (between 200,000 and 750,000 Spaniards have emigrated during this period). Bollaín cuts between interviews with a few dozen emigres, most of whom have college degrees, and they tell the same story again and again: at home they aspired to respectable careers as teachers, engineers, and media professionals, but in Scotland they ended up taking menial jobs to support themselves.
Bollaín’s gift for characterization is evident: her interview subjects register as three-dimensional people with unique interests and regrets, and one grasps the emotional gravity of the crisis before Bollaín expands her perspective to consider the roots of Spain’s dire economy. Most of the subjects admit that the ultracompetitive nature of the global job market has left them feeling isolated and powerless, and that these feelings have intensified since they left their families and friends to seek work abroad. Bollaín suggests that our well-being depends not only on economic opportunity but on our ability to develop our inner lives. Between the character portraits and history lessons, she tracks the progress of a large-scale art project created by one Spaniard in Edinburgh—a public installation created from thousands of found, solitary gloves, each representing a different emigre. The project is central to In a Foreign Land; if these immigrants can no longer express themselves creatively, Bollaín argues, then they’ve lost everything.