Michael Winterbottom’s In This World begins in a dusty Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. It ends, 88 minutes later, in a London mosque, where whispered prayers waft over the closing credits. The brisk running time belies the tortuous odyssey between those two points, a contradiction that gets at what makes this devastating study of the refugee crisis at once valuable and yet somehow compromised.
Previously titled The Silk Road, In This World is a fictionalized account of the treacherous passage thousands of refugees from Central Asia take to find a better life in the West. Dispassionate narration sets the stage: the movie opens at the Peshawar camp, where Afghans began flocking in the 1980s following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and which has been filling up again in the wake of the U.S. military campaign there following the September 11 attacks.
It doesn’t take long for a narrative to take shape. Jamal, an orphan teenager, and Enayat, a 30ish man with a child’s face, prepare to leave the camp for London, where life as illegal migrant workers awaits. For the next few months, the two live in the shadows, forever huddled in the backs of trucks, in back rooms and alleys, and, most ominously, in the dark confines of a shipping container. As they traverse two continents, the movie tracks their progress on a computer-generated map, complete with animated arrows and a voiceover dispensing background information.
The omniscient viewpoint suggests a documentarian’s approach, an impression only encouraged by Winterbottom’s vérité style. Shot on backroads, at border crossings, and in teeming urban jungles, this is a bracing specimen of guerrilla filmmaking. The movie was literally made on the run: accompanied by a skeleton crew and armed with a digital video camera, Winterbottom followed his leads as they reenacted with scary accuracy the trip from Pakistan to London. He claims that no dialogue was scripted, and that the narrative grew out of the stories relayed to them by the people they encountered. Only illegal and dangerous events, such as the harrowing crossing into Turkey, with its night-vision footage and trigger-happy border guards, were staged. For the rest, the director says he tried to create situations “where people didn’t have to act” (Village Voice, 24 September 2003).
No less compelling than Winterbottom’s working methods is the project’s genesis. A stirring work of advocacy, the movie came out of Winterbottom’s frustration with the emergent strain of xenophobia in Europe. Aspiring to be emblematic, it’s nothing less than the immigrant myth for a new century and the New Europe. The movie’s activism gives it an urgency that the times only magnify; at its best, In This World feels like a stirring antidote to the parochial mood of the moment.
The film fits neatly into Winterbottom’s eclectic canon. One of Britain’s most protean filmmakers, he can also claim to be one of the world’s most prolific. He has made a dozen features since 1995, an output that, while not quite Fassbinderian, certainly qualifies him as one of contemporary cinema’s more restless creatures. (He may be the British Soderbergh, flitting back and forth between intelligent crowd-pleasers and artistic doodles with relative ease.) In This World is the starkest manifestation of his humanism to date. The closest thing to it that he’s done is Welcome to Sarajevo, a war drama that overcame its Hollywood cast and flashy style to create a moving portrait of the Balkan mess.
Less polished than that movie, In This World has the feel of a downscaled epic. Despite the ‘Scope dimensions of the film transfer, the smudgy digital video look undercuts the baleful poetry of the landscapes. Far from betraying Winterbottom’s vision, however, digital video at least makes it possible. Much maligned for its sensual failings, digital video here lives up to its promise of immediacy and portability. Like last year’s Inuit saga, The Fast Runner, In This World would simply not exist without it.
Having shot his last movie, 24 Hour Party People, on digital, Winterbottom seems to have developed a fondness for the medium’s possibilities. His newfound enthusiasm calls to mind Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian filmmaker whose most recent pictures, Ten and ABC Africa, were shot on DV as well. As others have pointed out, the similarities don’t end there. The use of non-actors, the merging of narrative and nonfiction, and the abiding compassion also encourage the comparison. Like Kiarostami’s movies, In This World prompts questions about process: what is real and what is staged? What lines are improvised and which are coached?
It’s a likeness that doesn’t survive scrutiny, however. Kiarostami’s oeuvre is an ongoing critique of the innate dishonesty of film. Uninterested in the meta, Winterbottom opts for a more conventional experience. While it may luxuriate in the ambiguity its methods create, In This World is interested mainly in narrative and informational clarity. The matters that interest Kiarostami are afterthoughts here.
Eschewing the long takes of Iranian cinema, In This World appears pieced together, perhaps a function of its ragtag roots. The quick cuts and reliance on montage make the movie seem unfortunately truncated. The effect is particularly jarring in the first half, when Jamal and Enayat seemingly zip through Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey. His heart may be in the right place, but Winterbottom is a born showman — he lacks the rigor and patience to convey tedium and the passage of time.
That failure to trust the audience rears its head in other places. Dario Marinelli’s intrusive score insists on leading you by the hand, while some turns of plot, no doubt based on real events, are played up for maximum drama. Winterbottom fails to realize that nothing needs to be played up: the subject is drama enough. His cinematic flourishes — a lovely fast motion sequence straight out of his own Wonderland, a reverse tracking shot of Jamal as he runs toward the camera — are especially false alongside the movie’s unadorned patches. Winterbottom says that he never meant the movie to be anything but fiction, thus excusing the movie’s lapses into trendy style. It’s a disingenuous claim, considering the movie’s canny deployment of documentary tropes.
For all its flaws, In This World is not a failure — far from it. The whiff of audience supplication notwithstanding, the movie has cumulative power. A climactic Sebastiao Salgado-esque montage of the children left behind in the Peshawar camp packs a wallop. Even more shattering is Jamal’s last line, a touching utterance that deepens the prosaic title unexpectedly. The closing passages, in their stoicism and understatement, impart an unlikely but welcome quality: grace.
While In This World‘s missteps might indicate a lack of discipline, they also account for its potency as reportage. Attempting to put a human face on the refugee crisis, Winterbottom puts a premium on legibility. He wants his vision to be accessible. One can hardly begrudge him that objective. Devoting 88 minutes to one of the world’s gravest humanitarian crises seems too stingy, but that, and the movie’s other compromises, are comprehensible. Winterbottom wants to get people into those seats; he wants to change minds and lives. That touching faith in the power of cinema ultimately redeems his big-hearted, imperfect movie.