The faces of Jamal Udin Torabi and Enayatullah aren't the faces presented to America when nightly newscasts tell us about war. America is given the soldiers, the military leaders, the heads of state, but not those of the refugees - not those of the displaced, those who's only crime is being led to war by their leaders.
With In This World, one of four films in the 2003 Sundance Film Series, director Michael Winterbottom shows the struggle of two refugees trying to do what, for most, is an easy task: Get from one place to another. But when no one wants you, it can be a most difficult journey to make.
The story starts in Pakistan, where 16-year old Jamal and Enayatullah are in a refugee camp. They pay a human smuggler a large sum of money to set up the trip to London, say goodbye to their families, pack themselves on a bus and set out for a better life in England. Without proper paperwork or enough money, it is easier said then done.
The journey takes Jamal and Enayatullah through Iran, Turkey, Italy and France. They travel by boat, by produce truck, by packed bus and by foot. They run into swindlers, sweatshop owners and checkpoint guards.
There are no "actors" per se in the film. Jamal and Enayatullah are actual Afghan refugees and the film's "casting director" found both in a camp in Pakistan. The script is more of a series of scenes with objectives; all the dialogue comes naturally from Jamal and Enayatullah trying to get something from someone else. Their families, the smugglers and many of the people encountered along the journey are playing themselves. It's an intriguing blend of fact and fiction that, when combined with the digital video and documentary camerawork and lighting, makes the story even more compelling.
Winterbottom and his crew deserve major accolades for just getting a film like this made. Using little more than a digital camera, radio microphones (a boom mic would have been too conspicuous, he says in one of the DVD extras) and passports, his crew filmed in six countries, traveling the same route depicted in the film under conditions that would make even the most hearty Hollywood crew members cringe. They shot in snow in the mountains of Turkey and across the deserts of Iran. They shot in direct sunlight, in low light and, when Jamal and Enayatullah find themselves on a boat, no light at all. They shot in places of the world where only the two actors knew how to speak the language. Most remarkable of all, they did it at a time where sentiment towards the Western world might be at its nadir. In This World is both a creative and a technical achievement of the highest order.
The widescreen transfer of In This World is solid, but it can't correct some of the flaws inherent of shooting in the above-outlined conditions. There are a few times in which the colors seem overexposed and the amount of grain goes up as the amount of light in a scene goes down. The latter is especially true in the scenes shot at night, using the camera's "night vision" setting.
Maybe the most impressive technical aspect of the film is how the sound comes across cleanly. There is no distortion to be found in the Dolby Digital mix, which is concentrated in the front speakers.
Because of the experience shooting the film, In This World begs for a full-length, scene specific commentary. We have to settle for Winterbottom and writer Tony Grisoni talking over b-roll and behind the scenes footage. It's a full half-hour of fascinating stories about the research for the trip (Winterbottom and Grisoni both traveled the route themselves to prepare), how the "actors" turned up in the least-expected places and the process of working in hostile areas (you'll be surprised at which country was the least-pleasant towards the cast and crew).
Also included is a minute-long "Director's Introduction" to the film, with Winterbottom neatly summarizing the information given on the b-roll commentary track. US and UK trailers, DVD-ROM production notes and information about the other films in the series (The Other Side of the Bed, the melodramatic farce Die, Mommie, Die! and the sweet, affecting Dopamine).
In This World is Winterbottom's second picture examining the human side of war. His first, Welcome to Sarajevo, used the frame story of a journalist to examine life in the city during wartime. By dropping that framework and making a full film with the protagonists being the refugees themselves, Winterbottom has made a more confident picture; he trusts that the audience will understand their plight without a narrator/"journalist." It makes for a powerful viewing experience.