Director Michael Winterbottom is one of modern cinema’s most eclectic filmmakers. He’s done literary adaptations (Jude), political docudramas (Welcome to Sarajevo), wintery Westerns (The Claim), trippy postmodern 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, borrows from the cinema of a country most Americans associate with the “axis of evil.”
As many have noted, 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 world cinema. They’ve adapted Italian neo-realism (with its portrayals of urban youth) and documentary techniques, such as handheld cameras and natural light, and fused those with a purified storytelling that belies 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.
In This World clearly shows that Winterbottom’s been paying attention. His movie is a virtual homage to Iranian cinema, though it’s creative enough to stand on its own. The story concerns 16-year-old Jamal and his older cousin Enayat, Afghan refugees who live in a Pakistani camp but dream of a better life in London. The dream is shared by their families, who kill a prized cow (among other things) in order to afford sending 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 a journey, 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 can be to navigate your way through 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 continues, however, Winterbottom and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind manipulate their video images to striking effect. Many of the night shots take on an almost abstract quality, with dots and lines of light set against the darkness. Certainly 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 tremendous depth as well.
By situating In This World in post-war Afghanistan and Pakistan and then threading through the Middle East, Winterbottom forces his Western audience to confront the human dimension of places we only know as bombing targets, and to understand the people we often 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.
Which is why taking an Iranian approach is both effective and strikingly appropriate. 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. But 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 6 o’clock news. By adopting that approach, Winterbottom not only honors those who’ve gone before him (even directly quoting Bahman Ghobadi’s Time for Drunken Horses and Kiarostami’s documentaries) but also recognizes that the form of a story must match its content.
The film has one of the more powerful conclusions I’ve seen this year. In particular, its title takes on poignant significance and it achieves three noble artistic goals: to portray the lives of real people, to tell stories we otherwise wouldn’t hear, and to move us to consider the plight of those less fortunate than us. And it does all of this with beauty and grace.In This World is a tremendous artistic achievement.