In This World
review by Elias Savada, 10 October 2003

Michael Winterbottom's In This World is the second of four features (Emilio Martinez-Lazaro's The Other Side of the Bed, Mark Decena's Dopamine, and Mark Rucker's Die Mommie Die rounding out the specialty quartet) launched in late summer as the Sundance Film Series, a marketing gem promoting festival entries from that renown event that have heretofore not received commercial distribution. The features are, at least initially, unreeling in ten markets (including here in Washington, DC) where they are playing exclusively in theaters owned by the one of the series' co-sponsors, Loews Cineplex. In the DC-Maryland-Virginia metropolitan area, the films are playing in the central city venue and tourist attraction, Loews Georgetown, although In This World has since shifted to the outlying Cineplex Odean Outer Circle, one of the older duplexes catering to the art house market. Suburban patrons are thus allowed more leisurely access (i.e., less downtown traffic, easier parking). Frankly, as nice as the Georgetown multiplex is, bordering the Potomac River, it's nearly impossible to visit (unless you travel by foot) without plugging a meter (assuming you have enough quarters and the film you're watching is under two hours) or being hijacked for bigger bucks by local parking lot owners. (My suggestion: Sunday curbside parking is free.)

That the film has expanded beyond its confined Georgetown market is a fitting tribute to a work that takes a political subject (immigrant and refugee asylum) and paints a faux yet believable documentary veneer over the story of two young Afghanis attempting to smuggle themselves into England. The decidedly non-traditional screenplay by Tony Grisoni (Queen of Hearts, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the abandoned Terry Gilliam project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) is more a opinionated roadmap for director Winterbottom, although certainly one that falls within the realm of his oeuvre. Director of Photography Marcel Zyskind's bare bones digital video framework adds immensely to the day-in-the-life setting and the story's intimate urgency.

Winterbottom, a director who has attracted a critical following for his independent projects over the last decade, whether it's last year's 24 Hour Party People, a funny, madness-tinted binge into the yesteryear of the Manchester music scene, the little seen (and not very remarkable); The Claim (2000), an 1860s' Thomas Hardy romance set in one of those frigid, snow-covered, gold-seeking northern California mountain towns; the poignant ensemble piece Wonderland; or 1997's Welcome to Sarajevo, which deals with the Bosnian war and the orphans who are its victims. In This World seems a continuation of this latter film, with its combination of fact and fiction, yet with his new film he succeeds because he has jettisoned any semblance of a professional cast and replaced them with two individuals with no acting experience, and who seem to have no inhibitions in front of the camera.

Jamal Udin Torabi, playing the character Jamal, is a 16-year-old orphan toiling away in a Pakistan brick factory for the equivalent of a dollar a day. His older cousin Enayat (Enayatullah) is soon to be sent to London. What Enayat lacks (particularly the ability to speak English) makes Jamal the easy selection by Enayat's father to accompany and bakroll his relative as comrade, translator, and co-refugee on what will be an arduous journey across Asia and Europe -- a trail followed by about 1 million people each year, many entrusting themselves into the uncertain hands of "professional" smuggling agents.

Jamal, a determined youngster with much more resolute sense than his older counterpart, is the person whose strong desire pushes the pair further along the dusty byways from his Peshawar refugee camp -- by bus (twice), by truck, hidden behind crates of produce, over frozen mountain tops, and latter in a pitch dark, sealed shipping container even a holocaust survivor might find more accommodating -- than he probably deserves to travel, considering the legal quagmire, border restrictions, lack of proper papers, and Enayat's gentler, and more susceptible, nature. Obviously the roads to freedom are not paved with gold, unless its stuffed away in your shoe for a rainy day.

 

For such an undramatic piece, you're drawn to Winterbottom's world by its bleakness and hope. For those of us who take liberty for granted, In This World reminds us that there are many, many unfortunate millions who regularly consider braving horrible conditions for the mere chance to experience the same freedoms we have enjoyed for our probably too comfortable lives. In This World takes you on a suffocating, bewildering journey that leaves you gasping for the comfort of your easy chair, but may, just may, spark you to cross a heretofore unacknowledged cultural boundary and take this horrifying message to heart.

Directed by:
Michael Winterbottom

Starring:
Jamal Udin Torabi
Enayatullah

Written by:
Tony Grisoni

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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