'In Spain, drama is plastic, fake. For us, Loach is authentic'

Elizabeth Nash meets Iciar Bollain, star of 'Land and Freedom', and director Ken Loach's biggest fan
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Iciar Bollain played the flame-haired anarchist in Ken Loach's Spanish Civil War epic, Land and Freedom, the young woman who span furiously away from the anti-fascist militia in defiance of orders, but who later persuaded a comrade not to desert.

This Spanish actress - whose bubbly tomboyishness prompted Loach to create the role for her - was so taken by the idiosyncratic British director that she shadowed him on his next shoot, in Glasgow and Nicaragua, for Carla's Song. Every night, she wrote up her impressions in a diary now issued as a book: Ken Loach: Un observador solidario ("A sympathetic observer"). It is in the hands of a number of British publishers.

Loach's movies are hugely popular in Spain, though his uncompromising political radicalism is probably no more widely shared there than among his own compatriots. Why, I asked her, have Spaniards taken Loach so passionately to their hearts?

"You must realise that we aren't used to seeing real people portrayed in the cinema. We have very little documentary tradition in Spain, and this is the great component of Loach's films. They have this strong human content and the radical politics is wrapped around that. In England, you have the BBC and Channel 4, you are used to good drama. But here it's plastic, fake, Baywatch. For us, Loach is authentic."

She tells of a generation of young Spaniards who are forward-looking, if not particularly political, and aware of the wider world, who travel and make a stab at learning English. "A cinema-going public has grown up looking for an alternative to what we were served up, something that wasn't dubbed and pre-chewed." These are Loach's fans.

"It started in 1990 with Hidden Agenda [Loach's Irish political thriller] which portrays real personalities not Hollywood superheroes, and then Riff-Raff and Raining Stones. It was a gust of fresh air."

She says, with a laugh, that no Spaniard understood a word of what Crissy Rock was saying in Ladybird, Ladybird, but that everyone appreciated that she was a real person suffering. It is, she reckons, the truth of Loach's images that appeals, beyond his political message.

"Land and Freedom was an enormous hit among Spaniards, not just because it reclaimed part of their history," Iciar says, "but because it had authentic images, real faces and true accents."

Iciar Bollain was not "discovered" by Loach. A screen star at 15, now 29, she has many lead roles to her credit. After Land and Freedom, she wrote and directed her first full-length feature, Hola, Ests Sola? ("Hello, Are you alone?"). A poetic comedy about two young women seeking their place in the world, the film won several prizes, was acclaimed at London's Film Festival, and is still pulling them in a year after release.

The authenticity of Loach's movies, Iciar reckons, has to do with his method of film-making, which is unique in her experience. "Loach breaks all the rules to put everything at the service of the actor, so that the actor lives the experience in front of the camera. He films in sequence, he makes the camera seek out the actor, not the other way round. He rarely uses a lens wider than the human eye or shoots above or below eye level."

Iciar tells in her book how Loach's apparently spontaneous documentary style is planned and controlled to the last obsessive detail. She describes his painstaking efforts to find actors, often non-professionals, whose personalities must fit the character.

"The strongest sensation of working with Loach is that sometimes you forget you are filming. The group of milicianos he assembled for Land and Freedom bonded so intensely in real life that three years later we're all still friends." One of them was visiting her the day we met, and joined us for a drink.

Does she buy into Loach's radical vision of the world? "I never thought of myself as a militant," Iciar says. "I went for his cinematic style, for his respect for the people on the screen. He showed me a world I didn't know and I trusted that vision. Even if you are not fully persuaded, you question a lot of things about yourself."

He is a hard taskmaster. "He takes you to extremes, he gives you the script a page at a time. That day's shoot, you don't know what's happening next, it's like jumping into the void, very unnerving. On top of it, he doesn't speak much, doesn't tell you what to do." Iciar smiles, remembering agonies of uncertainty. "But it's worth it. You have a great sense of freedom."

Spaniards, she adds, like Loach's stories - "simple tales of love or adventure" - and his humane treatment of someone else's cruel reality. "For us, a working-class subculture of Manchester is more attractive than Madrid." They also identify with his sense of humour, subtle and indirect.

"When you see his films, you love them or hate them, but you never feel unmoved. He stirs things up. He likes to provoke a bit. We like that, too"n

'Ken Loach: Un observador solidario' by Iciar Bollain

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