Michael Winterbottom’s In This World is a British film that follows two Afghan refugees, 16-year-old Jamal and older cousin Enayatullah, on their trek from Pakistan to England in search of freedom and a better life. The two leads play or just are themselves.
The film’s nature is unclear. Is it documentary, or faux-documentary into which real events are interwoven? Regardless, Winterbottom’s use of digital cameras and in-the-moment technique achieve a sense of unfolding reality. The film also is an epic, taking up in the middle of things two adventurers who represent the aspirations of their war-shattered community. Instead of going home, though, the homeless pair are “returning” to where they have never been. Post-Marienbad, this becomes a metaphor for their wrenched, discombobulated lives.
Early on, a narrator provides statistics pertaining to the human displacement that began with the Soviet war against Afghanistan and whose last wave of refugees the 2001 U.S. bombing generated. The film opens in the Shamshatoo refugee camp, where Jamal, an orphan, was born; earning a dollar a day at a local brick factory, he lives with his brothers and sisters. (About 58,000 refugees occupy this camp.) The “plot”—Enayat and Jamal’s westward journey—immerses them in the people-smuggling business: a representation of all the forces that conspire to exploit the misery of refugees.
In This World is on-the-run through many transports through many cities, including Istanbul, Trieste and Paris. Along the way, Bressonian issues of risk and trust arise; so do stints in a sweatshop—rare sit-down scenes in an agitated film almost constantly on the move. The film’s most brilliant passage is nearly bereft of light; the image is degenerated to dots as a group of refugees, including Jamal and Enayat, scurry across hills as rounds of bullets are shot at them.
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