In This World
directed by Michael Winterbottom
(Lions Gate, 2002)

Imagine a reality show in which the participants actually had to face reality: not a reality fashioned by TV execs or a multibillionaire who was once the recipient of a government bailout, but the kind of reality faced every day by millions of people who've been driven from homes by one war or another and forced to live, and perhaps die, in refugee camps.

Now imagine that two of these "reality show" participants are offered the chance to escape that reality, but only if they can survive against overwhelming odds: not a vote by peers picked for their ability to trash their co-stars, but a 1,500-mile trek through uninhabitable deserts, snow-capped mountains, life-threatening border crossings, illegal sweatshops and corrupt officials who don't mind taking from the poorest of the poor or seeing people suffocate in cargo containers.

Actually, you don't have to imagine it, because British director Michael Winterbottom already has -- although not in the way you might imagine -- in In This World.

A few years back, Winterbottom, for reasons never fully explained, decided to retrace the route illegal Afghan immigrants often took from Peshawar, Pakistan, to London. But rather than simply interviewing some who'd survived the trek, he filmed a re-creation of it.

So in truth -- something reality shows are often short of -- In This World is not a reality movie. It's just very real.

Winterbottom's refugees, young teen Jamal Udin Torabi and twentyish Enayatullah, were not professional actors when Winterbottom met them. They were just two more inhabitants of the Peshawar camp -- but two who Winterbottom thought could tell his story. So he hired them, provided them with a script outline and followed them, camera in hand, as they traced the Silk Road, facing all the obstacles "real refugees" face when they attempt to sneak out of one hostile country through several others into a promised land.

It's a hard trip, both to make and to watch, and it takes some time to figure out what's actually happening. That's because Winterbottom limits voice-over narration and lets his characters improvise their own dialogue, mostly in their native tongues, but sometimes in heavily accented English.

There are moments of some mirth, as when Jamal tells Enayatullah a rather long, involved bedtime joke, or when he bribes a border guard with Enayatullah's Walkman, only to face recriminations from his older, but less understanding, companion. But you don't want to even think about what it must have been like for them inside the sealed cargo container that took them from Turkey to Trieste, or recall that these staged incidents are based on the lives, and deaths, of very real people.

For his work, Winterbottom was nominated for and won British Independent, BAFTA, European Film and Berlin International Film Festival awards. And, for all its flaws -- this is not an easy narrative to follow -- there is a genius to it.

Part of that is simply the casting. Jamal and Enayatullah have considerably more screen presence than some highly paid Western performers, and they achieve phenomenal screen chemistry in the time they're together. Moreover, Jamal goes on to prove he can carry the film all by himself when the need arises. It would be no surprise to see him turn up in other films -- or find him selling real estate, for that matter. He's a very convincing young man.

For his sake, we can only hope the real estate doesn't turn out to be in Peshawar.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 17 October 2004

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