In This World Review
As the thorny subject of immigration provides limitless column inches for right-wing British newspapers and fans the flames of panic across acres of middle England, it seems unlikely that many readers take time to really understand what motivates people to embark upon the lengthy and dangerous journey to Britain (and other Western countries), and the peril the trip involves.
For those who don’t know, here’s an opportunity to snatch an insight, courtesy of this re-release of Michael Winterbottom’s (24 Hour Party People, Welcome to Sarajevo) award-winning 2002 film, “In This World”, which proves itself a powerful blend of adventure, optimism, tragedy, and irony.
Jamal is a teenage Afghan refugee from the sprawling Shamshatoo Refugee Camp in Pakistan, home to 53,000 other refugees. Many fellow residents have only ever known life in the tough and impoverished conditions of the Pakistani camp, thanks initially to displacement following the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, and latterly due to the intensive US-led bombing campaign. When Jamal’s uncle speaks of sending his son, the easy-going and kind Enayatullah – or Enayat for short – to London, Jamal joins the arrangement, and after monies are exchanged with the right people, the duo embark upon their journey.
The initial optimism of the pair, characterised by Enayat excitedly practising English words and phrases in the rattling rear of an open-back truck, is soon tempered with a heavy dose of reality, as the rapidly savvy Jamal trades Enayat’s walkman to enable access through a checkpoint. The naive Enayat is shocked, but it soon becomes clear that despite the hefty fee paid up front, all and sundry will demand a financial cut from this long and winding expedition. The newly felt trepidation is cemented as a brutal sandstorm sweeps the desert, an ominous symbol for the dangers lying ahead.
What is particularly interesting as the trip heads through Iran, into Turkey, and then onto a mammoth 40 hour ferry journey to Trieste incarcerated within a lorry container (a truly uncomfortable and claustrophobic experience), is the tangible rising Westernisation of culture as each subsequent country is encountered. Yet, as each country passes, so do the stares of the local residents become more hostile. We even have a temporary stoppage at the infamous Sangatte camp in France, a reference point that most people will be able to use in bringing this story close to home.
When you learn the modus operandi that the crew used to produce this picture (and you can watch the ”Behind the Scenes” featurette to find out), the film becomes nothing short of remarkable. Firstly, both Jamal and Enayat (their real names) were hand-picked in Pakistan by the filmmakers; Jamal was a resident of the Shamshatoo camp, and Enayat was a market trader whose kind demeanour captured their hearts. Considering neither had ever acted before, their performances are nothing short of phenomenal. Secondly, these very same actors improvised their lines, presumably from basic guidelines handed to them by Tony Grisoni, who is loosely credited as “Writer”. Finally, the crew travelled the journey documented in the film in order to beat a path for the two actors, and had to use the very same bribery and street-wise trickery. This is wonderfully demonstrated during the intense bus search in Iran, where the policeman who stalks up and down the bus at a checkpoint has effectively been bribed with the massage of his ego – his resultant performance, of himself, is impeccable. With such an immediate connection to the reality of the journey, the brave method utilised by the filmmakers is the ultimate certificate of authenticity.
Yet, whilst the methods employed deliver the films highest triumphs, they also lend it an inherent weakness. The two lead actors perform brilliantly under the circumstances, but the lack of a fixed script and the reliance upon improvisation means that whilst the characters are convincing, the dimension and depth that could have been there is largely absent; we never learn a huge amount about their past, their dreams, or their opinions, nor do we know what their expectations are regarding their destination and future lives. The unflinching witnessing of the gruesome slaughter of a live cow and its associated suffering seems wholly unnecessary and somewhat arbitrary too; whilst you could argue that the filmmakers are only capturing the culture as it exists, there seems no real purpose for its inclusion.
Finally, the work doesn’t always seem to know what it is, and this delivers a somewhat muddled sensation. There is occasional, sporadic documentary-style narration, most notably in the opening sequence, but the film eschews the facade of a genuine documentary shortly after the opening as Director of Photography Marcel Zyskind submits to his urges and presents some interesting camera angles and techniques; check the shot of the colourful Pakistani wedding from above as money rains down, or the accelerated camera during the drive through the vibrant streets of Tehran. As the journey continues, the stylistic approach performs these often unsettling twists and turns, and we’re left with the sense that whilst this is an important film, an incredible achievement, and one that presents issues we really can’t ignore, it would have delivered a heavier impact to more people should there have been stronger characterisation, and a more even and consistent delivery. Nevertheless, "In This World" effectively unveils the tragedy and irony in real people’s lives that is often hidden behind the superficial prose of cheap and simplistic newspaper column inches.
“In This World” was originally released in 2003 by Optimum (sublicensed from ICA). This new release appears to be no different from the original, aside from a 2.35:1 ratio (compared to the 1.78:1 ratio of the original Optimum release), and that ICA have chosen to distribute it themselves.
Adopting some cinéma vérité styles and techniques, and using handheld digital cameras, the quality of the picture is inevitably grainy (which can make definition rather difficult to see on occasion). Yet despite this being a necessity of the method the filmmakers used, it actually enhances the impact of the story as the boys travel through a variety of harsh and uncompromising locations. There are moments of beauty captured in the scenery, with the magnificent backdrop of the snow-capped Turkish mountains, for example, providing a stunning canvas for the unfolding story. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is consistent, though the colour is often somewhat muted. This is presumably explained by the limitations of the equipment, and is compounded by the often homogenous landscapes in the more desert-like regions. Even this provides an interesting opportunity, as bright colours are presented vividly on occasion, in stark contrast to the burnt sienna canvas.
Whilst the general audio is understandably average, the powerful soundtrack by Dario Marianelli (who has latterly been responsible for soundtracks including V for Vendetta, and Shrooms), performed by the prolific Munich Symphony Orchestra, makes for a moving aural accompaniment, and performs a vital role in the impact of the film.
Aside from the scene selection, there’s the trailer, some text-based filmographies for Michael Winterbottom and Tony Grisoni, and a fairly pointless stills gallery. There is also a “Behind the Scenes” featurette, which enhances the strength of the film by demonstrating exactly what went into making it. Particularly fascinating is the warm reception the filmmakers received in Pakistan, and how this altered as they made their way across Europe into the West, particularly whilst filming around the Sangatte camp area in France.
“In This World” works brilliantly on many levels. The sprawling cultural melting point that is unveiled as the journey unfolds is sometimes fascinating, and at other times uncomfortable, none so much as when the camera glides above the shoe repair boy to an image on his wall of Blair, Bush, and Bin Laden above the burning twin towers. Despite this clear divisiveness, the Western and Middle Eastern cultures often overlap too, with plenty of imported technology positioned against traditional Middle Eastern backdrops. Perhaps most difficult of all is when Jamal tells a joke about the Englishman who has fallen over. Whilst I won’t recount it here, the joke encapsulates everything we need to know about the kindness, suspicion, and misunderstandings that can characterise the meeting of cultures, and why we need to examine ourselves and our influence more closely before making uninformed opinions. The film has some notable failings too, but if you can ignore the inconsistency and pervading lack of character depth, you’ll be rewarded with a unique insight into the troubled journey so many people risk their lives to take.