Window On Their World

7 minute read

London, August 2001. British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Tony Grisoni discuss their next project, a film that will follow two Afghan refugees as they smuggle themselves overland — squeezed between boxes of oranges, locked in an airtight freight container — from Peshawar to London. The journey will take the asylum seekers through western Pakistan to Iran, then on to Turkey, Italy, France and finally into Britain. With European hostility toward immigrants on the rise, Winterbottom wants to tell the other side of the story — he wants to do a film that’s sympathetic, but not sentimental, and very human.

New York, one month later. two passenger planes tear through the Twin Towers. President George W. Bush declares war on terrorism and vows to take the fight to the al-Qaeda camps of Afghanistan. Grisoni calls Winterbottom and asks nervously, “What now?” “Now,” says the director, “I want to do the film even more.”

The result of Winterbottom’s determination — In This World, which opens in London March 28 — shows the desperation and danger that an estimated 1 million asylum seekers endure each year. The film is thoughtful, tragic and unrelenting — it’s part road movie, part appeal for reform. From the start, says Winterbottom, the 41-year-old director of The Claim and 24 Hour Party People, he envisioned it as “an incredibly simple film. It has a very obvious story to tell — there are people trying to get here; will they or not? At the same time, the journeys are epic, with all the countries they pass through and everything these people have to do to get here.”

Simple appealed to Grisoni. When the screenwriter met Winterbottom, he was still recovering from his involvement with the disastrous The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which — thanks to a freak rainstorm and a lead actor with a herniated disk — collapsed on the sixth day of shooting. But his attraction was also more personal. “I recognized the fact that immigrants are the lifeblood of the country,” he says. “Most of us don’t have to go back very far in our family history to find an immigrant. In my case, it was my dad, so I’ve got a natural interest.”

Research started at home, with Winterbottom and Grisoni leafing through countless articles and listening to asylum seekers recount details of their arduous journeys. “There’s this idea that, unless they’ve been bombed in their homes, they’re false refugees,” says Winterbottom, whose characters go to London looking for work, not protection. “But even if they’re economic migrants, if someone’s willing to risk their life and make that journey to get here, surely once they do, we should want to help them.” At one point, Grisoni donned a hooded jacket and snuck into Sangatte for a few days, mixing with hopeful asylum applicants and creating characters in his head. “I met a Macedonian guy who called himself The Commander,” Grisoni recalls. “I put him together with another guy who had a great story [about working in a London pizzeria] and that became a character at the end of the film.”

Nothing about the film was conventional. No location scouts, no 120-page script, no comfy trailers — not even any actors. Instead, the eight-person crew flew into Peshawar, in Pakistan near the Afghan border, carrying only a digital camera, sound equipment (no lights) and a 25-page outline. Their plan was to find non-actors to stand in front of the camera: travel agents, café owners, soldiers and villagers. Choosing amateurs instead of professional actors reduced costs and upped the realism; and it also echoed a new trend of films starring non-actors, including Brazil’s City of God and Mexico’s Japón (Japan). But it wasn’t easy. After a tour of English language schools in Peshawar and six hours of taped interviews, call-backs finally went out to 50 boys for the two lead roles.

An army of casting agents couldn’t have found a better pair. Enayatullah, discovered working at his family’s hi-fi store, is the tall, wide-eyed and gentle Enayat. Jamal Udin Torabi, who speaks some English and keeps his own name in the film, plays his younger cousin, the street-smart joker. Both raised in Shamshatoo refugee camp, the film’s starting point, they became their characters in a real sense: young undocumented aliens heading down a long, frightening road. “The experience of traveling outside Pakistan was a new and strange one for them,” explains Grisoni. “And often at border controls, the officials were intimidating. So, there were plenty of times when the boys were uncomfortable. But we were always with them, always negotiating.”

As refugees, the boys had no papers. Getting them Afghan passports meant crossing the border into Kabul, its remains still smoking after America’s attack. And then they needed visas. Lots of visas. “When you live in a country like Britain, you have the idea that visas are to help you travel from one place to another,” says Winterbottom. “But they’re not, they’re to stop you. As soon as you get to a border with two Afghan refugees, you have a problem.” Most embassies agreed to grant visas if the boys could get entry into Britain first. But Britain wasn’t cooperating. In This World had become as much documentary as fiction.

Producers Anita Overland and Andrew Eaton made frantic calls asking every influential Brit they knew to write to the embassy. “This was an incredible lesson in international diplomacy,” says Eaton. “If you don’t exist as a citizen of the world, it’s amazing how restricted you are in what you can and cannot do.”

The begging letters worked and the visas finally came through. But then reality got in the way once more. Shooting in Pakistan was delayed by two weeks after journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped. The production again stalled when Turkey refused permission to film in a Kurdish area. Determined to get the picture made, the crew filtered into the country in pairs, posing as camera-happy tourists.

Moving through the region between January and March of last year, the crew couldn’t help feeling vulnerable. “We were in the heartland of anti-Americanism and everyone we met thought Sept. 11 was an American or Jewish conspiracy or both,” Winterbottom says. “Nevertheless, on a day-to-day level, people treated us in a friendly way with no obvious hostility.” Working through a translator (the dialogue is in Pashtu), Winterbottom just laid out what would happen next and then let the camera roll. Onscreen, the boys are so natural and unaware that watching them seems more intrusion than entertainment.

Having made his share of crowd-pleasers — 24 Hour Party People caught the rush of the 1980s Manchester rave scene — Winterbottom knows that this quiet, serious film won’t be a big box-office draw. And he concedes that “it’s not going to change the world, it’s not going to make everyone in Europe suddenly welcome immigrants.” But in a final twist of life imitating art imitating life, Jamal made it back to London after the filming ended and remains in the city on exceptional leave, free to stay until his 18th birthday. Maybe movies can change the world, after all.

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