February 12, 2004

Cornell Cinema

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Despite a rush of disarming familiarity from its unremarkable title, Michael Winterbottom’s most recent film, In This World, takes place in a world few of us have experienced. This is a world of refugee camps and human trafficking, where a chance for freedom means putting your life in the hands of strangers whose only motivation to aid in your escape is an insatiable desire for profit. Life here is bleak, but Winterbottom’s film is no typical drama. It is far from the typically melodramatic pieces of sentimental fluff that sacrifice realism for dramatic flair. In This World is so wonderfully raw, powerful because of its minimalist style and unforgettable because of its uncompromising honesty.

The story starts off in a refugee camp in Pakistan and this where we meet Jamal (Jamal Udin Torabi), 16 years old and already well versed in the ways of the world. When Jamal’s uncle, Wakeel (Jamau), decides to send his son, Enayat (Enayatullah), to London for the chance of a better life, Jamal is allowed to go along because of his ability to speak English. The two companions must make the journey by land, a harrowing voyage spanning multiple countries and hardships. Aside from the tremendous distance to be traversed, the entire endeavor rests on trusting multiple strangers who act as conductors on the human smuggling railroad.

Winterbottom’s film starts off deceptively like a documentary, complete with disaffected voice-overs and unvarying camera angles. The entire movie works off of this low-tech, hand-held camera style, which results in a higher level of intimacy between the audience and the two leads. The camera shakes when Jamal and Enayat run while playing soccer while an illegal border crossing at night contains only audio, with the characters barely discernable due to the lack of lighting. Paralleling the story line, experiences are presented as is, without ornamentation or subjectivity.

Keeping with the emphasis on authenticity, Winterbottom specifically employed untrained actors to tell his story. Torabi and Enayatullah are not performers with a script, but are actual refugees who are telling a version of their own story. The plain dialogue and rough editing only serve to complement the natural acting style of Torabi and Enayatullah. A frequent occurrence in the film, a lack of words often times conveys more than inflated dialogue every could, and the two lead actors reaffirm this trend with meaningful body language and subtle changes in expression.

Almost a third character of In This World, the film’s music brings with its sweeping strains a physical embodiment of the characters’ intangible emotions and anxieties. When paired with the stark Iranian landscape, the music conveys Jamal and Enayat’s feeling of powerlessness as they are forced to flee the local border patrols. When paired with a wide shot of the ocean, it communicates a sense of hope that perhaps the two boys’ destination is not an impossible destination.

However horrifying its subject manner may be, In This World, like its main characters, does hold on to hope despite numerous obstacles. Jamal and Enayat move hurriedly across several countries but almost at every stop are able to indulge in a game of soccer with local youth. The game becomes a way for the two to retain a sense of normalcy and remain optimistic. It also serves as a glimpse into a different side of the two cousins, a chance to see them as the boys they are rather than the men they’re forced to be.

Real and unembellished, In This World gives audiences insight into a world not so far away from our own. The movie derives its effectiveness and intensity not from plot complexity or technology but rather from a concentration on the experiences of its main characters. A real story about real people, Winterbottom’s film sheds light on a modern problem without resorting to subjectivity. In the end, we must make our own judgments, perhaps with the realization that in this world, we are the lucky ones.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang