LONDON—On the borders of Afghanistan, that other country where America won the war but lost the peace, a massive refugee crisis grinds on mostly forgotten by the world at large. For prolific British director Michael Winterbottom, however, the situation has occasioned a politically charged road movie. In This World (now playing at Loews 34th Street) is a stark, startling account of two Afghan refugees attempting the perilous trek from a crowded camp in Peshawar to the gold-paved streets of London. A daring hybrid of documentary and fiction that took the Golden Bear at Berlin this year, it even features two real-life displaced Afghans in the lead roles. “The idea was never to come up with characters and then go and cast them,” says Winterbottom, “but to meet people and then build a story around them.”
The story-building process began as Winterbottom and screenwriter Tony Grisoni visited the Peshawar camps and met with asylum seekers in London. In October 2001, while U.S. bombs rained on Afghanistan, they tried a dry run of the movie’s Pakistan-Britain route, gathering more ideas and personalities for the final product along the way. “Even while we were filming, Tony went ahead and met more people who then became characters,” says Winterbottom, who shot in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Italy, France, and England.
“Everything in the film derived from the stories people would tell us,” says Grisoni, who has also collaborated with Terry Gilliam on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and the upcoming Brothers Grimm. “But the journeys are so fraught with anxiety and danger—they’re something to get over, to forget. You’d ask, OK, what happened? And they’d simply say, I got smuggled to London. They’d be very resistant to go through it all again. In the next generation, I guess they’ll become romantic stories.”
For the voyagers, Winterbottom chose refugees named Enayatullah and Jamal Udin Torabi, who portray refugees named Enayatullah and Jamal. “The criteria were that they had to speak English and they had to be willing to trust us—people from En- gland they’d never met saying, Do you want to come away with us for two months?” Winterbottom explains. “We weren’t saying, You’ll get a chance to become refugees in Europe; we were saying, This will be interesting and you’ll get paid. That said, Enayatullah didn’t speak a word of English, and Jamal, you know . . . ” Winterbottom laughs, “he decided to come back over here.” After production wrapped and Torabi returned to Peshawar, where he earned about a dollar a day in a brick factory, the young man made a second trip to London and claimed asylum. Now 16 and living with a foster family, Torabi was granted exceptional leave to remain in Britain until his 18th birthday.
Thematically, Enayatullah and Jamal’s story doesn’t mark entirely new ground for Winterbottom and his famously eclectic corpus: In Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), set during the 1990s siege, he depicted the resettlement of a young Bosnian refugee in England. But given the dark and lethal turns that In This World eventually takes, the ambiguous territory it occupies between fiction and documentary may raise more ethical red flags than, say, the Madchester mythography of Winterbottom’s previous movie, 24 Hour Party People (2002), which played cheeky cat-and-mouse with Factory Records lore. In This World‘s most horrific episode is based on the deaths of 58 Chinese immigrants who suffocated inside a sealed refrigerator truck traveling to Dover in 2000.
“Some people get quite angry; they want to know for certain what’s fictional and what’s real,” Grisoni concedes. “But that blurring has always been the case—it’s more complicated here, but it’s been going on since the first time someone turned on a camera—since the workers filed out of the Lumière factory.”
“The film does play with what’s true and what’s not,” Winterbottom says. “Take Jamal. He is an Afghan refugee; his parents are refugees; he’s young enough that he was actually born in the camp. Most of his family live in one of the camps next door to the one we filmed in. His brother and sister in the film are really his brother and sister. His mum is alive, but in the film she’s not, so that is a fictional thing.
“If we wanted to change something, we would, and obviously all the illegal or dangerous events are staged,” the director continues. “But usually we tried to create situations where people didn’t have to act. We never said to anyone, You should be this sort of person, you should say this, you should act in this sort of way. It was more, Hey, do you want to be in the film? OK, you’re going to drive them here and drop them off here, or, They’re going to come to your house and you’re going to make them a cup of tea.”
The patient perpetual motion, the semi-improvisational methodology, and the decidedly hands-off direction of nonprofessional performers all parallel the docu-fictions of Abbas Kiarostami and other Iranian masters, though Winterbottom downplays the similarities. “I like Kiarostami a lot, but then again, there’s lots of great German road movies,” he says, citing Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities (1974) as a personal touchstone.
With In This World only now reaching U.S. audiences (on the heels of Stephen Frears’s thriller Dirty Pretty Things, set among London’s refugee underground), Winterbottom already has his next feature in the can: the nocturnal, near-futurist romance Code 46, starring Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, which recently premiered at Venice. Filming exteriors in Shanghai, Dubai, and Jaipur, Winterbottom used handheld cameras, radio mics, and available light—the same semi-guerrilla technique he deployed to capture the thrum and throb of street life in his bittersweet paean to London, Wonderland (2000). “We wanted not to create an artificial world, but to use bits and pieces of the existing world and juxtapose them,” he explains, “because the future’s more likely to look like the real world today than any studio set you’re likely to build.”
Code 46 forecasts a global polar divide between heavily checkpointed urban labyrinths and barren no-man’s-lands, a time when a person’s freedom and livelihood heavily depend on a passport-cum-insurance plan called a “papelle.” Sound familiar? “When we started working on the script, I was making In This World, and a lot of the texture of Code 46 came from our experiences in the deserts of Pakistan and Iran, the refugee camps, the hassles with visas,” says Winterbottom.
In turn, In This World responds to a chronic virulent strain of anti-immigrant scaremongering in right-wing British tabloids like the Daily Mail and Daily Express, either of which could give John Ashcroft a run for his money in the xenophobia sweepstakes. “Whenever I come across them, I’m always astonished by the huge amount of space given to stories about bogus asylum seekers and people invading our country,” Winterbottom says. “It’s an obsession. We were lucky with In This World—in Britain it got a lot of press coverage and sparked discussion about immigration, and maybe someone who saw the film would spend an hour thinking about what it’s like to be a refugee.”
Michael Atkinson’s “review of In This World