In This World

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

IN THIS WORLD

7/10

UK 2003 : Michael WINTERBOTTOM : 88 mins

Though at times uncomfortably straddling the divide between documentary and fiction, In This World is an appropriately gruelling, harrowing and ultimately moving journey to hell and back. The camera intimately follows a pair of young refugees – Jamal (Jamal Udin Torabi) and Enayatullah (actor shares character’s name) – as they travel over land and sea from their home, a camp in Pakistan, towards their intended destination of London. Relying on people-smugglers, Jamal and ‘Enayat’ encounter many obstacles on their trek – several of them hazardous, even perhaps life-threatening.

Winterbottom’s intentions are impeccable – dramatically changing tack after the giddily enjoyable 24 Hour Party People, he’s now using cinema to explore a pressing current political story that’s too often a matter of glib headlines and bald statistics. But he does occasionally tip over into lecture mode, especially during the (admittedly sparing) narration by Paul Popplewell that introduces us to Jamal and sketches in his plight. He also falls back on the hackneyed strategy of cutting away from time to time to show a red line moving on a map to indicate his characters’ progress – but in this instance such a clich is justified, and even re-invigorated: it’s very useful to know exactly where we are at any given time, and the fact that the map used is a 3-D contour projection adds to the visual impact of what is a striking-looking film.

Shot on digital video by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, In This World vividly recreates the atmosphere of each stop along Jamal and Enayat’s progress, the gritty immediacy of the DV format occasionally giving way to some unexpectedly lyrical images. Peter Chrystelis’s editing is also top-notch, giving plenty of pace to what could easily have often been a static ‘travelogue’ – we sympathise with the characters’ many stretches of tedium and frustration, without ever feeling bored or frustrated ourselves. The performances are vivid and believable, with especially convincing work from the resourceful Jamal, although – as with Enayat/Enayatullah – the fact that the names of character and actor are identical causes some problems.

To what extent is In This World Jamal’s actual story? When Winterbottom uses on-screen titles to inform us of Jamal’s eventual fate, does he mean the fictional or real person, or both? These on-screen titles recall the similarly troubling technique Peter Mullan used at the end of The Magdalene Sisters – another impressive picture which couldn’t quite avoid the trap of feeling as though the film-makers were to some degree preaching to the converted: few viewers would find these films’ underlying message (the Irish Catholic Church was very bad / refugees have it very tough) at all surprising.

And, like Mullan, Winterbottom and scriptwriter Tony Grisoni don’t include much in the way of analysis – the issues surrounding refugees (or, as they’re known in current British newspeak, ‘Asylum Seekers’) are of course massively complex, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be summarised or addressed to a greater degree than In This World attempts. Winterbottom’s neutral, reportage-ish style means that his somewhat muted ending is in some ways the weakest part of the film. It does seem harsh to quibble with such a skilled, important piece of film-making, however – In This World is an intelligent, accessible, rewarding piece of work, one that should be seen by the widest possible audience. And for all world’s politicians who legislate on the issue it raises, it should of course be compulsory viewing.

5th June, 2003
(seen 29th May: Tyneside Cinema – with thanks to Jonny Tull)

by Neil Young