Take My Eyes, Spanish actress/director Iciar Bollain's third film, is a sensitively handled love story with dark overtones that has won seven Goya awards (the equivalent of the UK Baftas). It was also garlanded with the Best Actor and Best Actress awards at the 2004 San Sebastian International Film Festival.
Shot in the pleasing surroundings of Toledo, Pilar (Laia Marull), a young woman in her mid-20s, has walked away from a marriage with Antonio (Luis Tosar) who is over-possessive and physically violent. Antonio wants her back and attends therapy classes, vowing to change. Should Pilar trust him again? Can Antonio change?
Iciar Bollain, who co-wrote Take my Eyes with Alicia Luna, describes her film as "a very damaging love story." Iciar's debut film as a director was the award-winning Hola Estas Sola? (1995), followed by Folores de otro Mundo ('Flower from another World' 1999) which was awarded with Best Film at Cannes's 1999 International Critics Week. Iciar is the author of the book Ken Loach, un observador solidario and a well-known actress. Among her many film credits is Ken Loach's Land and Freedom (1995). She lives in Madrid with her Scottish husband and screenwriter Paul Laverty, who has worked frequently with Loach.
Meeting her in the comfortable surroundings of the Rathbone Hotel in London, I'm interested to know what the origins of the film were.
"In recent years,' replies Iciar, 'there have been several news stories of domestic violence and it intrigued me. Why for example, do women live with violent, aggressive men but often never leave? We wanted to explore that."
Iciar contacted womens' refuge organisations, police domestic rape departments and therapy groups to research these cases.
"Interestingly, we found it going on in every level in society,' says Iciar. Many times husband and wife work, or only the wife works or the husband doesn't want the wife going out. It breaks all your imagined stereotypes when you delve into it. It can happen in your family and friends and you may not know it."
Take My Eyes is a film about trust and frequently the lack of it. "It's a case of rationalizing jealousy, coping with it and doing something about it,' she muses, 'but some can't do that."
The countries with the highest levels of domestic violence are in Northern Europe. "Ahead of Spain,' Iciar reveals, 'are Norway, Sweden, Britain, France and the Netherlands. In Spain right now it is a very big issue."
Iciar found that men engaged in therapy for such cases often possessed a lack of self-esteem, and limited communication skills. There were also different levels of violence: men who are bullies and others that were controlling.
That in itself presented Iciar with the question of whether she should show domestic violence or whether the threat of it would be just as effective.
"We all know what's it like, Iciar reflects. 'You really are expecting a blow at any time. You know these characters after a while and you are expecting a crisis at any moment."
In terms of casting, Iciar knew Luis well but had to cast far and wide before she found Laia. Both give particularly good performances.
"There are a lot of good actresses in Spain, but we were looking for someone really specific. She had to be weak and lost at the beginning of the film and gain in strength mentally as the film went on, so we had to find someone who could portray many contradictions in her character. Laia had an ability to show vulnerability but also an ability to be brave too."
Iciar, an actress in her own right, was happy to give the actors freedom to bring things to the film. "I let them feel free with the lines. Sometimes, what they added got dropped in the cutting room but other times they added something good which wasn't there in the first place."
One scene was singled out for special treatment and shot 'Ken Loach' style, without rehearsal and with the actors fresh to the goings-on. Without giving too much away, it's a particularly tense, pivotal scene.
Iciar takes up the story. "We purposely never rehearsed it. The crew wanted us to, but with crucial scenes I thought we can't. If we did, we would kill the moment. It has to be fresh, a surprise for the actors as well. That way they let themselves go and see what happens. You have to have that rush of blood sometimes, the adrenalin fresh, the first feeling. It was a hard scene to watch and hard for them doing it."
Take My Eyes has taken on an unusual but constructive life. "The film has been used by many related groups from judges, to women in therapy, to all sorts of associations," reveals Iciar, "it can be hard sometimes for women to express in words what they have been through, so it is now being used by police to help train their policemen and women how to offer greater sensitivity in these cases."
Winning so many awards was naturally pleasing. "When we made it," jokes Iciar, "we had low expectations, and my friends were even saying why do you want to write this sort of story? People want to be entertained! So we didn't expect much success. Now though, my film has been seen by over a million people in Spain and even won an award from an office for domestic violence in Madrid. It's hard to believe. Never in my wildest dreams, would I have expected that much respect for my film."
Iciar's husband Paul (Laverty) is often more on the road than she is, and since they have two children (aged 4 and 10 months old), Iciar in her mid-30's has tended to plum for jobs closer to home. She is currently writing her next feature film and has been offered acting work in a TV drama series.
I wonder if there's ever likely to be a husband and wife collaboration given their pooled talents.
"We help each other, sure,' laughs Iciar, 'but so far we've not actually worked together. We're both very stubborn people! Paul does help though. He might just say, that character is crap, or this or that doesn't work, that sort of thing and it's frequently a help to have someone close but outside the subject to take a fresh look at something."
Iciar wants to continue to write and direct but also has to remember sometimes that she is also an actress. "Sometimes I'm amazed I am still called for jobs, that people still remember! Whenever I'm offered something really nice, I like it. It helps me to remember how tough it is to be in front of a camera !"
The Spanish film industry, Iciar thinks, has been doing well of late but the predominance of U.S. films on cinema screens is an habitual problem.
"The government is more committed to the film cause," she says, "but still we're very fragile. If any sources of funding fail, the project fails with it. It's hard to release the films as we have just 18% of the screens for instance for local Spanish product, European and other non-European films - i.e. everything except the big American films. People don't always remember they have a choice. They don't have to watch a Hollywood film when they go out. They could try something different."
We've reached the last few minutes, so a final question. What lies behind the title?
"The title,' Iciar reveals, 'comes from an African book. In a poem, a girl says, "Now I give you my eyes." It's a romantic notion but has a darker connotation."
Take My Eyes was released on Friday in the UK through Swipe Films.