By J. Robert Parks
British director Michael Winterbottom is one of the most eclectic filmmakers I know. He’s done literary adaptations (Jude), political docudramas (Welcome to Sarajevo), wintery Westerns (The Claim), trippy pomo biopics (24-Hour Party People), and futuristic, sci-fi love stories (Code 46, to be released next year). But his bravest and most successful film to date, In This World (2003), is inspired by a country most Americans associate with the “axis of evil.”
As I’ve written many times in this space, the Iranian New Wave is one of the most important cinematic developments of the last decade. Directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have had an enormous impact on the rest of world cinema. They adapted Italian neorealism (with its portrayals of urban youth) and documentary techniques like nonprofessional actors, handheld cameras, and natural light, and fused those with a purified storytelling that belied its apparent simplicity with extraordinary force. Indeed, you can’t talk about the Dogme movement in the West or the explosion of the master shot form in China and Taiwan without looking first at what’s happened in Iran since the late ’80s.
After watching In This World, it’s clear that Winterbottom’s been paying attention. His movie is a virtual homage to Iranian cinema, though it has more than enough creativity to stand on its own. The story concerns sixteen-year-old Jamal (Jamal Udin Torabi) and his older cousin Enayat (Enayatullah). Afghan refugees, they live in a Pakistani camp but dream of a better life in London. That’s the dream of their families as well, who scrounge up the money, by killing a prized cow among other things, to send them. The problem is that the route is a long, dangerous one over land, and nowhere along the way do they have proper documentation. Only by going through shady smugglers do they have a chance. It’s their only chance, though, so they take it.
In This World is basically a road movie, following our protagonists through the hills of Pakistan, into the urban milieu of Tehran, across the snowy mountains that divide Iran from Turkey, and beyond. Jamal is the only one who speaks English, so he acts as the leader despite his youth. Winterbottom does a fantastic job of conveying how difficult and scary it must be to navigate your way in a place you’ve never been before. At times, the two meet wonderful people who take them in and care for them. At other times, they meet not-so-wonderful people who take their money and send them packing. Through it all, the two hold on to the hope of a better life.
Winterbottom uses handheld digital cameras to chronicle their odyssey. I was disappointed at first, as some of the landscape imagery would be spectacular on film but feels dull and lifeless on video. As the movie goes on, however, Winterbottom and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind manipulate their video images to striking effect. Many of the night shots take on an almost abstract quality, dots and lines of light against the darkness. I realize the use of digital video was primarily an economic decision, but after a while it creates a mood that fits the neorealist narrative. The use of ambient sound adds tremendously as well.
If In This World were just a road movie, it’d be an interesting tale. By situating it, though, in postwar Afghanistan and Pakistan and then threading through the Middle East, Winterbottom forces his Western audience to confront the human dimension of places we only seem to bomb, to understand the people whom we stereotype and vilify. The refugee problem is an international crisis, and yet most Westerners don’t have a clue or choose not to have one. This film is a powerful portrayal of what we try not to see.
All of which is why taking an Iranian approach is both strikingly appropriate and effective. Iranian cinema has consistently stripped its stories down to their bare essentials, focusing on normal characters confronted with a problem. No fancy effects, no distracting subplots. Instead, we watch a child try to deliver some homework, we watch a woman try to find a job, we watch a family try to cross the border. The simplicity of Iranian cinema has infuriated critics like Roger Ebert, who see it as miserablism in the extreme. Yet, that misses the power of seeing a story told with economy and verve, of being confronted with the lives of people whom we never see on the six-o-clock news. By adopting that approach, Winterbottom not only honors those who’ve gone before him (with direct quotations of Bahman Ghobadi‘s Time for Drunken Horses and Kiarostami’s documentaries) but recognizes that the form of a story must match its content.
I can’t talk about the ending of In This World without giving far too much away. I’ll just say it’s one of the more powerful conclusions I’ve seen this year. In particular, the film’s title takes on great and poignant significance. A friend of mine saw it and wondered what the point was, arguing that the film seemed unfocused. My response was that the movie achieves three of the highest goals art can accomplish–to portray the lives of real people, to tell stories we otherwise wouldn’t hear, and to move us to thoughtful prayer and action on behalf of those less fortunate than us. And it does all of this with beauty and grace. In This World is a tremendous artistic achievement.
4.5 stars (out of 5)