Fictional Reality

Michael Winterbottom’s latest award-winning feature follows young refugee Jamal and his cousin Enayatullah on a dangerous and difficult journey, from the remote borders of Pakistan to London in search of a new life. Right from its beginning in Shamshatoo refugee camp in Peshawar, Michael and writer Tony Grisoni give us a road movie with a difference.

The film is openly polemical – a voiceover contrasts the amount of money spent bombing Afghanistan with the amount of aid allocated to the refugees in Peshawar – ‘home to an estimated one million refugees’ – such facts and figures repeatedly cut through the action, framing the otherwise fictional story with factual authenticity. The result is a kind of docu-drama, and indeed everything about the film looks and feels like a documentary.

Michael establishes an improvisatory quality reminiscent of 24 Hour Party People to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. Shot entirely on DV, the shaky handheld camera and swift editing disrupt and disorientate as we travel with the two asylum-seekers on a never-ending round of buses, lorries and boats through sand-swept deserts and snow-covered mountains bleached out through over-exposure.

The deliberately ‘rudimentary’ filmmaking is highly effective – and nowhere more so than in the tragic sequence in which Jamal and Enayatullah find themselves trapped inside a cramped cargo container. Michael eschews any artificial lighting – and the voices from the darkness we are forced to share are all the more harrowing for it.

Of course there are those who will have difficulty in accepting the director’s ‘factional’ film – the negative connotations of the term ‘mockumentary’ expose a general resistance to fiction dressed as fact. But In This World can defend itself against such charges in two ways. First, Michael has made a film that skilfully mixes imaginative and intellectual engagement – each acts as a catalyst for the other in a potent combination.

Second, the film shows us that an absolute division between fact and fiction may not be an accurate distinction. In one of the most remarkable examples of life imitating art it transpires that the actor playing Jamal (who shares the same name as his character, and who Michael discovered in a language school in Peshawar), arrived in London as a genuine asylum seeker shortly after the film was made.

The closing titles of In This World inform us that Jamal’s asylum application has failed and that he will have to return to Pakistan the day before his eighteenth birthday. In this moment Jamal’s situation, and that of the hundreds of thousands of refugees like him, becomes very real.

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