Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Written by Tony Grisoni
In This World tracks the story of two Afghan refugees attempting to make their way from a Pakistani refugee camp to the promised land of London, England. There’s a sequence late in the film of the main characters working in Italy, which brings to mind the work of Rossellini and De Sica from Italy’s post war Neorealist movement. It isn’t solely an homage because In This World is a modern-day Neorealist film, capturing the genre with its use of non-actors, natural lighting and a plot that is a realistic portrayal of the day-to-day struggles in people’s lives. It is a poignant tale presented in such an honest and unobtrusive way that I couldn’t remember if I was watching a documentary or a work of fiction, which is was great art does.
Enayatullah and his family were among the throngs of Afghans who fled to safety as the United States attacked Afghanistan and the Taliban. They ended up in a Pakistani refugee camp. It is decided that Enayatullah will go to London so he can make some money to help the family. Enayatullah’s younger cousin Jamal, who’s around 15 years old, accompanies him because Jamal speaks a little English. The family can’t afford airfare, so the cousins have to make the trip by land, which is a difficult proposition due to all the borders that have to be crossed and the black market dealings involved in the illegal transportation of people. Payoffs have to be made two or three steps in advance and there’s no assurance that the next group of contacts will be found so the trek could come to a sudden dead end at any time. Their journey to England takes them from Pakistan through Iran, Turkey, Italy and France. Their modes of transportation include but aren’t limited to buses, military vehicles, the backs of trucks, being locked in box for 40 hours on a freighter, and even sneaking across borders on foot passed armed guards.
Although traveling is hard, waiting for the next leg of the journey to start is equally as taxing. Hours and even days of frustration pass as they helplessly linger in a new town, jumping at sounds that might be the authorities coming to send them back. The pressure increases as funds shrink, paying for unaccounted meals and hotel rooms on this layover none of their travel agents mentioned.
Unexpectedly, there’s a knock. Quick! Grab your bag. Run to the pick-up point. Hurry! Get in. Call this phone number. No time for questions. Good luck. All the while never knowing if you’re being steered in the right direction, if your payoff made it to the next man in the chain, if the phone number will work.
There’s a great sequence where the boys are on a bus headed to Tehran. An Iranian officer gets on the bus and immediately recognizes them as Afghans. It was an odd moment because being an American and having limited contact with different types of Arabs in no way could I have picked out Afghanis from the Iranians on the bus, but the officer knew immediately. After bribing him with a watch, they are escorted by tank to the Pakistani border. Since London was their only option, Enayatullah and Jamal find the man responsible for getting them into Iran to start the process over. Unfortunately, they have to repay because now they won’t catch up to their money. There’s no guarantee that those originally paid off will still be doing the job by the time they arrive.
The documentary feel of the film is best illustrated at the first attempt to get into Turkey. One night, a young boy of about eight takes Enayatullah and Jamal to the Iran-Turkey border. They have to hide because the border patrol is shooting at others trying to get into Turkey. There’s no light at all except the occasional headlight from the guards’ vehicles. The camera does the best it can to record the visuals but the constant movement and the strain on the camera’s technical abilities produce streaks of blacks and whites across the screen. We only hear people running, guards shouting and guns firing. It creates suspense and does a great job of capturing the essence of the moment.
This film offers an honest look at the struggles of immigration and causes you to wonder what would you do in their place. Ultimately, it’s about survival. Being in California it helps to put a face on the immigration problem we have here in regards to Mexico and other Latin American countries. Along the way the boys meet a young couple and their baby who are also heading to prosperity but like so many other families they don’t get to complete the journey together. This will definitely be too harsh and realistic for some. Don’t look for happy endings for all with everything tied up nice and neat like a sitcom. If you don’t want to confront world issues in your entertainment, this will not be for you.
I enjoyed this movie thoroughly and found it satisfying on many levels. It was wonderful to be taken to another part of the world rarely seen in cinema and vicariously experience the struggles of others. The creators do an amazing job putting this movie together. Their stylistic choices, shooting on digital video, using non-actors, the abundance of long takes, all seemed to naturally derive from the story’s parameters, even if they may have been financially motivated. It’s the kind of film that installs in you a desire to make the world a better place. Please go see it. We need more films like this.