Refugees are the silent victims of war, and they are not nearly as interesting to our CNN-trained eyes as exploding smart bombs or the latest alleged recording from Saddam or Osama. The refugee situation in Pakistan is a mixed bag, the narrator of In This World tells us. Some Afghans have lived in the Muslim nation since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, others were born there and a new wave began arriving in the wake of U.S. bombings. Michael Winterbottom’s fictional (or is it?) documentary chooses one boy to tell the tale of the thousands. Jamal Udin Torabi, who may have been born to fulfill just such a role, is up to the task.
Jamal plays himself, a scrappy 12-year-old orphan who accompanies his older cousin Enayat (Enayatullah) as he makes his way to London to seek a better life.
Done documentary style, the filmmaker takes Jamal and follows him on a fake (real?) journey north toward London. A word of warning to those prone to motion sickness: In line with the film’s documentary-style, most of the filming is done with handheld cameras, shot by running cameramen, or filmed on trucks or buses with terrible shocks. Take Dramamine before viewing, or risk a Blair Witch flashback.
Jamal is bright, but that’s not all that’s needed to travel the treacherous road of smugglers and thieves. Safe passage requires a healthy dose of luck and street smarts, which Enayat lacks.
Despite constant dangers and setbacks, Jamal is gregarious, quick with a joke and the first to shake hands in any situation. He knows several languages — most importantly, he speaks English. While Enayat is content to just hope for the best, Jamal understands that palms need to be greased. He crisply tells his cousin, when Enayat complains that Jamal gave away his Walkman to an inquisitive official, that given the choice between keeping the Walkman and making it to England, he’ll take a pair of silent headphones any day of the week.
Jamal and Enayat’s journey is long and arduous, made under tarps in truck beds, in packed buses, over mountains and through deep, freezing snow. Nothing comes easy. That the two boys are willing to risk everything is clear. Winterbottom has made a movie that does the near-impossible. It shows the urgency and danger of illegal cross-border travel while never losing its audience. The film ends with dozens of refugee children smiling and prancing for the camera. Jamal is a vision of hope and ambition. As it turns out, the Jamal, like his quasi-fictional alter ego, is now seeking asylum in London.
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Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].