Dangerous Journey

in 51st International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Ronald Glasbergen

In this World (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)

He had already shown his social and cinematographic commitment with films such as the cinematographically poetic Wonderland (1999) and Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), an engaged film shot at the end of the war raging there. For director Michael Winterbottom, the news reports in June 2000 about the deaths of 58 illegal Chinese migrants in a refrigerated container near Calais, who were locked up there by people smugglers, were the direct reason to make this film.

The film’s narration is a fictional story based on interviews with refugees who have made such a journey themselves. These stories have been converted into a loosely formulated script, which is then largely interpreted in front of the camera by the ‘actors’ themselves. The production and the acting of the actors who come from the real world are broadly parallel to each other.

The film tells the story of two young Afghan refugees Jamal (Jamal Udin Turabi) and Enayat (Enayatullah) who both grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan. They want to go to the West and receive support from family. Their destination is London, where a brother of Jamal has already found work. Because Britain, like all intermediate countries, has a strict and selective entry policy for immigrants, the only option is illegal overland travel. Thanks to the support of Enayat’s family and an uncle, they are able to pay intermediaries, the network of people smugglers who organize the dangerous and difficult journey because of its illegality.

Jamal and Enayat travel by taxi to a stopping place, from there in the back of a pick-up and by bus to Iran. Their home front, the uncle, who has invested not only money and hope for the future in them, is kept informed about the journey with irregular telephone conversations. Those phone calls are the ‘lifeline’ with family back home. A first attempt ends up at a checkpoint in Iran. Jamal and Enuyat are removed from the bus and sent back to Pakistan. Their second travel attempt takes them via Tehran to Iranian Kurdistan. There they cross the border into Turkey at night over snowfields. Together with an Iranian couple with a baby, who also have Western Europe as their destination, they travel to Istanbul. They do simple work for a few weeks in a Turkish company. Jamal, Eneyat along with the three Iranians and an elderly traveler are shipped from Istanbul to Italy. They will travel in a truck locker locked from the outside. They do not know that the journey will take several days. The truck travels by ferry by sea, from Istanbul to Trieste. The heat, the seclusion, and the stuffiness of the completely dark storage space leads the migrants to despair. They try to attract the attention of the outside world, but there is only one of people’s abandoned ship deck with dozens of trucks in the scorching Mediterranean sun. When the storage space in a shed in Trieste is opened from the outside by employees in the people smugglers’ organization, only Jamal and the baby appear to have survived the heat and the lack of oxygen. His traveling companion Enayat has died as well as the couple and the old man. When Jamal wakes up from unconsciousness, he flees horrified from the shed, into the city. The film shows him again, two weeks later. In the centre of Trieste he sells knick knacks to the middle class and tourists. He steals a tourist’s bag and finds enough money in it to buy a train ticket to Paris.

From Paris he travels to the Red Cross camp Sangatte near Calais, which was a last stop for many illegal immigrants and asylum seekers on their way to England (The camp closed shortly after 2002). Together with a new travel companion, Jamal, lying under the chassis of a truck, evades the French and British border controls. This is how he arrives with his older brother in Great Britain. There, a final telephone conversation with home, Peshawar, takes place: “How is Enayat?”, asks an uncle. Jamal replies, “He is no longer in this world.”

Jamal Udin Torabi and Enayatullah, the two main characters in the film are themselves in real life Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. Winterbottom cast them on the spot, in Pakistan. Together with the film crew they travel to London, running the production on the way. It is broadly the same journey as the one described in the film. Michael Winterbottom has kept stage directions for his “actors” extremely minimal. Winterbottom himself says: `[…] usually we tried to create situations where people didn’t have to act. We never said to anyone, You should be this sort of person, you should say this, you should act in this sort of way” (Winter 2003; Sept 23). The camerawork arises from the nature of the film, the night shots in black and white to increase the light output of the image and many shots on location, in which the film is simply filmed in the midst of passers-by without the direction of extras.

The film was shot on digital video, with anamorphic lenses to achieve a 2.35 aspect ratio for theatrical screening, but the cameras are light and mobile, suitable for a small flexible team, and the camera work has characteristics typical of a particular type documentary filmed on the fly. Another feature of the documentary is the voice over, which in the first sequences of the film describes in objective terms the situation of Afghan refugees in camps in Pakistan. These characteristics and working method, together with Winterbottom’s ‘actors’ approach, mean that the concepts of fiction and non-fiction are sometimes very close to each other in this feature. The ‘out-of-picture narrator’ at the beginning, the scenes filmed in observational style in the midst of undirected street and country life, contribute to the feeling that the viewer is seeing a documentary, while other scenes are clearly fiction. Also in those clear fictional scenes the dialogue is sparse and naturally improvised. It gives the film a kind of ambivalence between documentary and feature film, which alerts the viewer to the nature and content of the shots. These are clearly images that are close to the reality of the actors. This dosed ambivalence results in a fascinating feature film, which visually tells a lot about the circumstances of the two characters (and therefore of the actors) from the perspective of the migrants and which provides an adequate insight into their motives.

Ronald Glasbergen
Edited by Savina Petkova