Living Like a Refugee

Michael Winterbottom and Tony Grisoni deliver the tale of two boys lost In This World

Prolific British director Michael Winterbottom never seems to make the same film twice. His last picture, 2002's 24 Hour Party People, was a fact-based comedy/ drama about the music scene in Manchester, England, during the early days of punk rock. The Claim (2000) was an adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel. Wonderland (1998) looked at unfulfilled lives in working-class London. His best film, Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), dealt with Western journalists covering the Bosnian war. His latest to open in the United States, In This World, is about the plight of refugees; in this case, two Afghan cousins who try to make it from Pakistan to London. They are but two of the more than 1 million people who every year put their lives in the hands of human smugglers. It is not an easy film to watch.

Winner of three awards at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival, the Golden Bear (the top prize), the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and the Peace Film Prize, In This World gives every appearance of being a documentary -- it was shot cinéma vérité style and without the use of artificial light, non-actors were cast in the roles, and the dialogue was improvised rather than written -- yet it is a fictional film. The fact that the story it tells (screenplay by Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas scribe Tony Grisoni) has been true for countless refugees the world over makes the events depicted much more harrowing.

Bright, resourceful, 16-year-old orphan Jamal (Jamal Udin Torabi) lives in the Shamshatoo refugee camp outside Peshawar, Pakistan. His older cousin Enayat (Enayatullah) works in the family-owned market stall in the city. Enayat's father wants to smuggle his son to London, in hopes of a better life there. Jamal offers to introduce his uncle to a man who can help. He also suggests that since he speaks English, he should accompany Enayat to London. His uncle agrees and pays a large fee to a "broker" who arranges their passage.

The overland journey, which is supposed to take them from Pakistan to Iran, into Turkey, and then on to Italy, France, and the U.K., is extremely hazardous. Not only could they be discovered by immigration authorities and arrested or sent back, but they could also be abandoned by their supposed rescuers or die from the terrible conditions in which they sometimes must travel. Tedium alternates with anxiety as the two travelers are passed from smuggler to smuggler along the route. They wait for days on end for rides they aren't sure will ever come; at one point they get kicked off a bus for not having proper papers. More than once they are locked in stifling hot freight containers, completely dependent upon others to remember to release them before they suffocate.

Shooting hand-held on digital video, director of photography Marcel Zyskind does a masterful job. The footage shifts from black-and-white to color, with grainy images that have the feel of immediacy and spontaneity. Although Winterbottom plotted out the story line for his two nonprofessional actors, they basically improvised their lines, acting out each scene according to how they would react in similar situations. The dialogue is sparse, and Winterbottom relies on natural sound, a voice-over narrator, and a wonderful musical score from composer Dario Marianelli that blends Western and Eastern rhythms and melodies. The music turns increasingly ominous.

The use of music, as well as speeded-up footage of Tehran at night and slow-motion images of the refugees being shot at along the Turkish border, is the only suggestion that the film is not an actual documentary. Certainly it has the stark look and emotional rawness of one. In This World was shot in the actual locations where it was supposed to be taking place. The American military had just started its bombing campaign against Afghanistan (the production began just four months after the 9/11 attacks), placing everybody in very real danger.

To a great extent Winterbottom lucked out, especially with the charismatic Udin Torabi, a young boy who didn't know his real age but thought he was about 14. He has the spirit of a young Antoine Doinel, the hero of Truffaut's seminal film The 400 Blows, and Winterbottom shoots him at times to evoke that memory. In a chilling case of life imitating art, Udin Torabi slipped back into England after the filming wrapped, seeking asylum. Like Jamal's in the movie, his ultimate fate remains up in the air.

In This World is being presented by the Sundance Film Institute as part of a four-film series that will open in just 10 U.S. cities. Presumably it will air on the Sundance Channel at some future date.

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