As those of us who don’t live in a cave are aware, the biggest film event of the year took place last Sunday. Gowns were donned, the red carpet was brought back to life, and one publicist was reported to have exploded, all in celebration of the small, golden, naked man that rules over Hollywood.
This week’s column, however, has nothing to do with the Academy. For us snooty folks who are more interested in alternative, political films, engaging with the Oscars tends to be a relatively masochistic pastime. It’s not that I don’t love a good blockbuster from time to time – some of my best friends are blockbusters – but watching people who are already swimming in money and recognition get heaped with more of the same, while independent filmmakers struggle to get projects off the ground, is sometimes more than I can bear.
Instead of working myself into a frenzy of impotent rage over the red carpet, I decided to focus on something more positive. Last Thursday, Toronto became the first city in Canada with a formal policy allowing undocumented immigrants access to municipal services like shelters and healthcare without fear of being deported.
In honour of this historic legislation, this column will focus on In This World, a 2002 docu-drama about undocumented immigrants, directed by British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom in the same year he made 24 Hour Party People. Angered by the post-9/11 atmosphere and its increasing xenophobia toward undocumented immigrants, Winterbottom made a film about two Afghan refugees who make the overland journey to London.
The film begins in Peshawar, Pakistan, to which Afghan refugees were first displaced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s. After American involvement in the early 2000s, a voice-over tells us, the number grew to over one million. Here, we meet the protagonists, Jamal Udin Torabi and Enayatullah, refugee cousins whose uncle arranges their trek to London. On a journey increasingly fraught with danger, Jamal and Enayatullah are forced to shed their native language, clothes, and culture in hopes of establishing a better life.
Though ostensibly a work of fiction, In This World is in many ways a documentary. Winterbottom went to Peshawar and found non-professional actors to play the roles of Jamal and Enayatullah. Not only were the actors themselves Afghan refugees, they also shared the names of Winterbottom’s subjects. Winterbottom and his crew then took Jamal and Enayatullah – the actors – on the exact same route taken by the film’s protagonists for the shoot. As the actors had never left Peshawar before, and the film was largely unscripted, their responses to new places like Tehran, Istanbul, and Italy are genuine. Furthermore, Winterbottom’s filming crew was often missing the necessary documents to get the actors across borders, and much like the smugglers in the film, had to resort to bribes and lies. At one point, a member of the Iranian border guard discovers Jamal and Enayatullah and sends them back to Pakistan. In fact, the Iranian border guard was playing himself – Winterbottom offered to pay him to demonstrate what he would do if he discovered Jamal and Enayatullah were illegal.
In addition to using non-professional actors, shooting on location, and relying heavily on improvised dialogue, the film’s cinematography and editing are entirely in documentary style. The intense commitment to realism, though it sacrifices development of Jamal and Enayatullah’s characters, lends an emotional urgency to the plight of refugees that extends beyond the film and into the real world. By putting a human face on perceived ‘outsiders,’ In This World works as a powerful rebuttal to the xenophobic sentiments that first inspired it.
At the end, when Jamal finally arrives in London, the film seems to suggest that his future there, as an undocumented immigrant with no friends or family, is highly uncertain. Indeed, for many migrants without papers, the end of a dangerous journey is only the beginning of a new struggle. Toronto’s new legislation means that for hundreds of people in Ontario without documents, that struggle will be a little bit easier.
Lilya Hassall is a U3 Cultural Studies student. Forays Into Film is a bi-weekly column about alternative films. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.