From Peshawar to London Town

Michael Winterbottoms's "In this World" tells about a journey of two Afghan refugees who are trying to get to London. The docu-fiction won this year's "Golden Bear" award at the Berlin Film Festival. Review by Ariana Mirza

Michael Winterbottoms's "In this World" tells about a journey of two Afghan refugees who are trying to get to London. The docu-fiction won this year's "Golden Bear" award at Berlin's International Film Festival. Review by Ariana Mirza


​​Their escape route follows well-trodden paths. With enough dollars stuffed in their shoes to see them on their way, they are carted across entire continents by a series of people-smugglers - and fear accompanies every step they make. Jamal (Jamal Udin Torabi) is just 16, and his cousin Enayat (Enayatullah Jumandin) is barely older. They have committed themselves to a perilous journey into the unknown that will last many weeks. It begins in a dust-blown refugee camp called Shamshatoo in North-Western Pakistan, and continues via Peshawar, Quetta, Teheran, Istanbul and Trieste to the French refugee centre of Sangatte. In the last frames of In This World, we see that Jamal, at least, has managed to reach his destination: a Pakistani fast-food joint, somewhere in London.

Dreaming of a new life in Europe

The "economic migrants" Jamal and Enayat are the protagonists of this drama, which won the English director Michael Winterbottom the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Though it’s clear whose side the filmmaker is on, In This World doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve; instead, it tells its tale in a cool, sober and businesslike fashion. Neither Jamal nor Enayatullah is a professional actor; the boys were found shortly before filming began, in the Shamshatoo refugee camp, which holds 53,000 people. And just like the characters they embody in the film, Jamal und Enayatullah dream of a new life in Europe: only weeks after filming was completed, Jamal Udin Torabi himself emigrated to England.

Michael Winterbottom’s eye-opening work combines fiction with reality in a subtle and complex manner. The very form of the film blurs the borders between documentation and dramatisation. Deploying voice-over commentaries and images of maps, Winterbottom informs the audience that millions of people all over the world are on the run; that the world’s poorest countries contain by far the largest numbers of refugees; and that migration is often the result of war, and of the inglorious interventions of wealthy foreign states.

Meticulously-researched chronicle of an odyssey

photo: AP
Michael Winterbottom

​​Cameraman Mariel Zyskind has taken pains to lend the film the appearance and “feel” of a documentary. He used only natural light, recorded on DV, made extensive use of a hand-held camera, and frequently moved in very close to the actors. And Tony Grisoni’s script leaves plenty of room for improvised dialogue, as well as for the anxious silence that befalls Jamal and Enayatullah at various points in the course of their journey. InThis World is the meticulously-researched chronicle of an odyssey made by thousands every year, and Winterbottom clearly intends to let the audience know how it feels to attempt, and endure, such an ordeal. The film’s praiseworthy intentions and its conscientious realism have been justly applauded by film critics all over the world.

And yet… it has to be said that In This World leaves the spectator relatively unmoved, not very much the wiser, and ultimately somewhat baffled. In fact, the movie’s faults have received relatively little attention from the critics. Its biggest weakness is this: although the film takes such pains to confront us with the boys’ experiences on the road, Jamal and Enayatullah ultimately remain strangers to us. As the camera never offers us anything more than a cool, externalised view of its protagonists, it can show us nothing of their cultural roots, their feelings or their personalities. Though Winterbottom makes every effort to give two anonymous “asylum seekers” a face and a name, these Afghani youths are ultimately no more than typical case studies – ciphers, in fact.

The same can be said of the people they encounter along the way. All of these people-smugglers, Good Samaritans, border guards and temporary fellow-travellers… they’ve hardly made an appearance before they disappear again without trace, making it impossible for the audience to gain any deep insight into their motivations or personalities. Certainly, the fragmentary presentation and the very superficiality of the boys’ encounters and impressions are in accordance with Winterbottom’s desire to capture “the way things really are”. But at the end of this film, many viewers will be left wondering just why people like Jamal and Enayatullah are so desperate to reach Europe at all costs. Indeed, in the final analysis, it looks very much as if the audience’s bewilderment is in fact shared by the European director himself.

Ariana Mirza

© Qantara.de 2003

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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