Penélope Cruz Encouraged Juan Diego Botto to Direct Debut Feature ‘On the Fringe,’ a Devastating Commentary on Spain’s Eviction Crisis

Juan Diego Botto’s feature film debut is a heart-breaking social drama and scathing critique of the neoliberal structures that have resulted in a catastrophic eviction crisis in Spain, where more than 400,000 people have been forced out of their homes over the past decade.

“On the Fringe” screens in the Zurich Film Festival’s country focus sidebar, New World View, which this year showcases works from new Spanish filmmakers.

The impressive achievement, which premiered in Venice, grew out of a conversation Botto had with friend Penélope Cruz after she saw a play he had written and was starring in. She suggested he write a script for a project they could do together, perhaps a relationship drama, something to do with jealousy, the Argentine-Spanish multi-hyphenate recalls.

Botto began by writing a scene centering on a couple having a heated, jealousy-soaked argument the night before their eviction – the real cause of their suppressed fear and anger. Unhappy with the jealousy angle but very interested in the backstory, he shared it with wife and writing partner Ola Rodriguez, a journalist who had been covering the housing crisis.

Rodriguez knew a lot of lawyers, activists and social workers involved in organizing protests and legal campaigns against the evictions. She put Botto in contact with them, beginning a process that lasted several years and that resulted in their joint script.  

“I told Penélope, ‘I don’t have the jealousy thing, but I have this. Would you be interested in it?’ She said ‘Yes,’ and here we are.”

“On the Fringe” follows a group of people whose lives intersect, among them a supermarket employee, played by Cruz, struggling to stave off an eviction from the apartment she shares with her husband and young son; an idealistic lawyer (Luis Tosar) and his stepson (Christian Checa) on a frantic search for a young mother who is about to lose her child; and an older woman (Adelfa Calvo) desperately trying to reach her estranged, guilt-ridden son, who is still suffering the loss of his business and his parents’ savings.

“The housing problem is the central theme that defines the poverty problem in Spain,” Botto explains. “The market is not regulated. They can raise your rent 100%, 200% from one day to the next.”

In Spain, unlike in the U.S. and many other countries, property owners who face foreclosure end up losing their homes but remain on the hook for the debt still owed to the bank.  

“So you’re on the street with three kids, have no money whatsoever, but owe the bank €40,000, €60,000, even though the bank got the house,” he adds. “You’re screwed for life because you have no possibility of ever getting credit again. There’s no possibility for you to have a second chance.

“That is why the housing problem was hard on the middle class in Spain. It is insane.”

At the same time, Spain has a very low percentage of social housing and a relatively small social net, he adds. “Once you fall into the poverty cycle, it’s very difficult for you to get out.”

The situation has left many families having to decide between feeding their kids or paying the rent or mortgage, he notes.

“As we say in the movie, there are a 100 evictions everyday – those are insane numbers.”  

Yet Spain also has the biggest rate of empty houses in Europe, Botto adds. During the banking crisis, international investment companies like Blackstone acquired countless apartment buildings throughout the country. In order to boost the value of their newly acquired properties, many companies keep houses empty, thus increasing market demand and ever higher prices, he explains.   

Botto initially faced difficulties in securing financing for the project due largely to its subject matter – potential backers were thrilled about a film with Cruz … until they heard the word “eviction.”

Cruz then decided to become a producer on the project to help make it happen. “And of course everything changed after that,” Botto says.

Madrid-based Morena Films and Spanish public broadcaster Radio Televisión Española (RTVE) then boarded the project, followed by Amazon Prime Video.

Botto at first planned to only write the script and did not plan to direct the film.

“It was Penélope who suggested that. ‘You know the material so well,’ she said. ‘You’re in love with the story. Why don’t you do it.’”

Botto says he has always been interested in telling stories, in every part of the process, and was eager to take on the challenge.

“It was a suggestion that I appreciated because she trusted me. She’s a huge star and that trust was very helpful.”

For this particular story Botto knew he wanted to do something that was “very realistic.” That included a grainy documentary look, the kinetic movement of handheld cameras and, for reference, the work of photojournalists who had covered the evictions and the people affected by the crisis.

As for filmmakers that may have inspired him, Botto notes, “Of course these references, you have them within you. People tell me, ‘This is like the Dardennes.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, probably, because I’ve seen all of their movies and love them.’ Or, ‘This is like Ken Loach.’ ‘Yeah, it might be, because I love Ken Loach.’”

While it’s shot like a documentary, Botto also wanted it to be “thrilling and entertaining,” with a plot that’s constantly moving forward and a central dilemma that has to be resolved within short span of time.

The film is also a paean to women and mothers, who are often forced to take control when the going gets tough, becoming the ultimate caretakers of the family, particularly when their proud men lose their employment, their sense of identity, and their dignity.