Michael Winterbottom Talks About His Tragic Road Movie, “In This World”
by Howard Feinstein
When Emma Lazarus wrote “your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” she was referring to the social freedom that is inherent in an ideal democracy. What she forgot was that most of the immigrants who have come to American shores have searched less for liberty than for the means to eat and have a roof over their families’ heads. Many Americans today, however, forget our own heritage. Our notions of immigration are too often based on fear of competition for a piece of the pie or a phobia about welfare.
British director Michael Winterbottom’s “In This World” is the second in the Sundance Channel’s Film Series, a theatrical run of heady films at Loews theaters in 10 American cities. In this astonishingly beautiful, moving, and souped-up road movie about two displaced Afghan men who risk their lives to get from Pakistan to London, the director reveals an acute understanding of the differences as well as the overlap between political and economic freedom. In conversation, he makes a case for refugees to have the right to work in wealthier countries, make money, and send some of it home — a logical alternative to vast amounts of foreign aid.
Winterbottom is an auteur in the manner of the great directors of the golden years of the Hollywood studio system, but much more socially engaged. As always, he adapts his style — in this case a stunningly integrated mélange of naturalism, rapid-fire montage, and artful maps and titles that seem to beg attention to the director as outside observer — to serve the subject matter at hand. On set, he was unobtrusive, deploying a minimal crew and handheld digital video camera to chronicle the treacherous journey undertaken by young Jamal (Jamal Udin Torabi) and his older cousin Enayat (Enayatullah Jumaudin) across forbidding borders, scorching deserts, freezing mountain passes, and endless stretches of sea to reach England, a country where, he says, both Labor and the Tories vied for votes in the last elections with platforms that sought to exclude refugees. “The Liberals and Conservatives believe that if they are not tough the far right will get stronger, so it’s their duty to be racist,” he explains. That Jamal Udin Torabi is actually a native of the refugee camp of Shamshatoo and snuck into the U.K. on his own after the film wrapped adds another layer of truth to the enterprise — as does the fact that both “actors” are nonprofessionals, Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. (Jumauddian was born in Afghanistan, Torabi was born in Pakistan to Afghan parents.) Given the impact on the viewer of this ambitious enterprise, it’s small wonder that the film took the Golden Bear at the last Berlin Film Festival.
“At the beginning, we were quite tempted to use Chinese refugees,” says Winterbottom, a handsome, sparrow-like man who looks a decade younger than his 42 years. We are speaking in the Sundance Channel’s offices in midtown Manhattan just before he is to introduce the film at the opening night of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this past summer. “I didn’t want to pick people who could be seen as political refugees, so that some could say, ‘Those people should be allowed in here.’ We wanted economic refugees.
“Afghan refugees in Pakistan (a country with an astounding two million refugees of various backgrounds) have fled the Russians, the Taliban, the American bombing, but having arrived in Pakistan, their journey is more economic. They are not fearing any longer for their lives as they were in Afghanistan,” Winterbottom continues. “Three quarters of the refugees in Peshawar (the city nearest to Shamshatoo) live in the town, not in the surrounding camps. Nevertheless, they are refugees. They are not in their own country, nor are they in a place where they feel they can make a life with their families.
“You watch Jamal and Enayatullah making this journey, you think of others who make it — if they are lucky enough to arrive in Europe. The sense of protectionism of Europe for Europeans only is rampant. We should be able to say that these people are trying to make better lives for themselves and for their families, and we should make it possible; we should welcome it. And we should not do what we do at the moment, which is to make their ride as horrible as possible. One wrongheaded school of thought is that if we behave in a decent way to people who get here, it will encourage others to come — therefore it is our duty to behave in a terrible way.”
He says that, though the starting point of the project was about Europe being against everyone from outside, “the spark was the horrid suffocation of 58 smuggled Chinese refugees in a metal container on a ship that arrived in Britain.” He said that he and screenwriter Tony Grisoni “decided to tape the people making this journey, see the risks they take, the money they spend, the time it takes, the chances they take. They may lose their lives along the way. And even if they get there, they leave behind their family, their friends, their culture.”
It’s no accident that the company Winterbottom has with longtime producer Andrew Eaton goes by the moniker Revolution Films. The product of a lower-middle-class family in the gritty North England mill town of Blackburn, Winterbottom was educated at Oxford (which in the director’s 1996 film “Jude” became Westminster, the college that working-class stonemason Jude Fawley yearns to attend). There he handed out copies of a Trotskyite pamphlet called The Militant. Staying true to a progressive, idealistic spirit, he has created a (highly prolific) body of work for the cinema and for television that includes films about the lower classes (e.g., “Wonderland,” “Family,” “Go Now”) and the otherwise disenfranchised (e.g., “Welcome To Sarajevo,” “Butterfly Kiss,” “The Claim”).
He has the knack of discussing his films calmly, with rational arguments. He sees the problem of refugees being locked out of Britain as part of a much larger global issue. “You have millions of people in Pakistan working for a pittance. They see on someone’s TV people with mobile phones, the technology that connects everyone,” he says. “They live in a world dominated by ours, but they have no access to it because they do not have any money. As long as that situation continues, there are going to be people who would like their fair share.”
This idealist is, however, not blind to the realities of the status quo. “It’s the nature of society that some people are outside it,” he says with a shrug. “It’s true at all times that there are people who will be victimized, that there are people who will be excluded.” And these will continue yearning to breathe free, claiming a right to survive day-to-day as much as to enjoy the civil liberties that everyone, especially Brits and Americans, take (or should be able to take) for granted.