In This World (2002)


(director: Michael Winterbottom; screenwriter: Tony Grisoni; cinematographer: Marcel Zyskind; editor: Peter Christelis; music: Dario Marianelli; cast: Jamal Udin Torabi (Jamal), Enayatullah Jumaudin (Enayat), Paul Popplewell (Narrator), Wakeel Khan (Enayat’s uncle); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Andrew Eaton/Anita Overland; Sundance Film Series; 2002-UK-In English with subtitles in Farsi and Pashtu)

“It’s a stirring work of advocacy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In This World was the winner of the Golden Bear, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Peace Film Prize at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival. It’s done so affectingly well that it’s hard to tell if it’s fiction or a documentary, as this politically motivated docudrama by British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (“24 Hour Party People”/”The Claim”/”Welcome to Sarajevo”) and writer Tony Grisoni relates the harrowing fictional account of two young Afghan refugees and their desperate illegal passage from Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Italy, and France en route to London in search of a better life. The film covers the odyssey of two uneducated Pashtun youths, the 16-year-old orphan Jamal and his twentyish-aged cousin Enayat, as they leave their tents and primitive living conditions in the north-west Pakistan Shamshatoo refugee camp in Peshawar that holds 53,000 Afghans. Some refugees have been there ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Others arrived after the 2001 United States bombing attacks in their country. A series of facts are presented by a BBC commentator (Popplewell) in narration, such as there are 14 1/2 million refugees in the world and that about one million people a year from various countries hire smugglers, many of whom are untrustworthy, to sneak them into their country of choice. The filmmaker also includes visual aids such as maps and location markers of the site reached to indicate the pilgrim’s progress.

The illegal trip overland across the hinterlands of Asia to Europe is arranged and paid for with the smugglers in the refugee camp by Enayat’s uncle Wakeel. Along the way they are given names of fixers to contact who will link them up with traffickers. Initially only Enayat was to go, but Jamal talks his way into going because he speaks English. Jamal proves to be a good choice for a traveling companion, as he relieves the anxiety with silly jokes and uses his ‘street smarts’ to help them out of some potential jams (by giving a suspicious guard at a Pakistani checkpoint their Walkman they are allowed to continue on without a delay).

Their trek over the harsh desert landscape starts by bus to Quetta and then they ride through the country on a series of pickup trucks. On their way to Tehran an Iranian bus driver spots them as Afghans and they are sent back to Pakistan, where they rejoin their fixers but have to pay them again to get to Tehran (greasing the palm is shown as a way to get things done in these Third World countries). This time they are hidden among crates of oranges and take the back roads, where they are undetected. The highlight of their journey is when they come to a small impoverished Kurdish mountain village and are at last treated with dignity. In all their stops, even though they don’t speak the language, soccer is the way to communicate.

On the road for some time, they at last cross on foot from a Kurdish-controlled pass in Iran over the beautiful snow-covered mountains at night to arrive in Turkey. When they reach Istanbul they are loaded with several others into a sealed shipping container of a ferry along with a desperate Kurdish family and their infant son seeking asylum in Denmark, where some meet a tragic fate after being locked in for 40 hours as they cross the sea to Trieste, Italy.

The film makes its salient point stick about the global crisis of human uprooting plaguing the modern world, something that has taken on epidemic proportions especially in Afghanistan. The heart wrenching story provokes us into thinking that the world community has a responsibility to alleviate this situation. Winterbottom shot it on digital and transferred it to widescreen 35mm, using the guerrilla vérité-style. Its imperfect look gave the film the gritty realism it was after and the natural feel of a documentary. It gets intense performances from the non-professional actors and some sparks from its improv dialogue without being Hollywood-like in the dramatics, but the film’s real star is the journey itself. It’s a stirring work of advocacy, a reminder that the forgotten refugees such as these two Afghans are still ‘in this world’ and need our attention to do them justice. There’s also a pulsating score by Dario Marianelli, which at times drowns out the film’s intention to be sparsely told.