The Underside of Globalization:


by Chris Darke *

Open Democracy
April 3, 2003

The new film from British Director Michael Winterbottom, which won top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, brings a rough-grained documentary immediacy to the story of two young Afghanis smuggled across Europe to the UK. In the context of the war in Iraq- threatening to displace tens of thousands – and recent attempts to toughen European immigration laws, it has a grim timeliness.

Motion pictures, emotion pictures: movies move. Migrants move, too. They cover vast distances to escape tyranny, poverty and persecution and their journeys move us to sympathy and solidarity but more often, sadly, to hysteria. Cinema is uniquely equipped to give an account of their experiences. But I can think of only two recent British films that have attempted to depict migration; Stephen Frear's Dirty Pretty Things and Pawel Pawlikowski's Last Resort, in which the portrait offered was not of migration as perilous flight or courageous exodus, but as movement blocked and stymied.

The Texture of Displacement

In This World, directed by Michael Winterbottom and written by Tony Grisoni, is a new British film about migration, and hence about movement. Its strength and cinematic potency (sufficient to have secured it the top prize of the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival) resides entirely in its understanding of migration as movement. The film follows the journey of two young Afghani men, fourteen year-old Jamal (Jamal Udin Torabi) and his older cousin Enayat (Enayatullah), from the city of Peshawar on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border across Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Italy, France and thence to London. Bracketted at its beginning and end by scenes shot in the refugee camps of Shamshatoo and Sangatte.

In This World delivers a sustained, sometimes gruelling and traumatic depiction of the business of people-smuggling. And it is fitting that the film's images should themselves also have the feeling of having been smuggled across borders. Using digital video cameras, Winterbottom and his crew gained an extraordinary degree of access to a world rarely seen on cinema screens. From hundreds of hours of footage Winterbottom has crafted a film that conveys the texture of its context, the sensation of its circumstances. That is to say, it is sometimes rough, blurred, almost abstract: the sequence filmed during the cousins' night-time crossing of the mountainous border between Pakistan and Iran is given an eerie grain by its degraded, highly pixelated footage. But this is more than a case of stylisation for its own sake. The film builds its textures of images and sounds to convey to its audience the simple fact of duration: long periods of nervous waiting followed by mad scrambles or surreptitious advances towards the next staging post on the epic journey.

Blurring the Boundaries

We get to know our two migrants, Jamal and Enayat, en route. As the film proceeds, they stop being merely ‘cases' and become ‘characters'. But we never lose sight of the fact that these are not actors but real people participating in a staged journey that follows the route taken by many seeking to travel to western Europe. The boundaries between documentary and fiction are, thus, constantly blurred. Though the film-makers deny In This World is a documentary in the strict sense of the word, what remains of the documentary impulse lies deeper in the film than in its digital vérité shooting-style alone. Again, it is a matter of finding a way of depicting movement. Statistics tell us only so much: how many on the move, the distances covered, the numbers of bodies unloaded from the back of a lorry. Hence the unease provoked by the film's very occasional semi-didactic lapse into voice-over exposition. The human cost gets lost when crunched into numbers. And it is less what is said that matters here than what is shown.

In This World shows migration and displacement, and the way it works on two human beings, as a force, an equal reaction to an opposite action (destruction, poverty). We see it in the film's depiction of Jamal and Enayat's stop-start progress, their seeping through the cracks in checkpoints, breaching porous borders, stowing-away in the hold of global circumnavigation. It is this force that propels them forwards on the back of pick-up trucks, in the belly of sea-borne containers and, in one powerfully emblematic sequence, as two tiny figures wedged beneath the wheels of an HGV heading for the UK.

The Underside of Globalization

"There is a world inside the world", observes one of the characters in Don Delillo's novel Underworld. Winterbottom's film takes us into one such world, the underside of globalization in which people are trafficked like goods for currency. There are many perils on the journey, and horrifying deaths, but the film's depiction of these moments is underplayed and observational and is all the more forceful for being so. In setting themselves the task of accompanying Jamal and Enayat on their journey, the film-makers have sought to show the human qualities, the courage and stamina, of those described as "economic migrants", a term which, when set against that of ‘refugee', Winterbottom describes as leading to an "insidious distinction".

And the film is a truly cinematic achievement on a number of fronts. It takes us way beyond the sulphurous statistics and hateful rhetoric of much of the British press on the issue of migration. It shades and develops the often hopeless photofit-journalism of much TV coverage. As cinema, it does what mass media is incapable of doing – broadening, deepening, humanising an ‘issue' by putting the ‘migrants' back into ‘migration', watching the toll the journey takes and putting us, the viewers, squarely in their place. By emphasising the experience that lies behind the phenomenon of people-smuggling, by giving it its own texture of image and sound – rather than having to palliate it with lurid melodrama or sensational sub-plotting (Frear's failure in Dirty Pretty Things) – In This World powerfully and illuminatingly reveals ‘the world inside the world'.

Chris Darke is a London-based writer and film critic. He has contributed to Film Comment, The Independent,Sight and Sound, Frieze, Trafic and Cahiers du cinema and is the author of Light Readings: Film Criticism and Screen Art, Wallflower Press. A Letter from London by the author is online at He is also a contributor to

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