Give the guy credit. He took his DV equipment right into Pakistan and, with only minimal guidance and apparently no script, he set his "actors" in motion in a story about a child trying to leave his Pakistan home and escape through a network of "human smuggling" to London.
The results... the struggle to gather the necessary traveling gear, the struggle to communicate with those who don't speak his language, the ordeals on the road by truck and on foot, the nerve-wracking moments at military checkpoints, a terrifying border crossing on a snowy mountainside as patrols open fire on illegals, an excruciating trial trapped in a metal crate for days that recalls the terror of Blair Witch... are really amazing.
You could easily convince viewers they are watching a documentary, but then they'd wonder how the cameras got there. The actors are surprisingly principled in ignoring the cameras, but then at time children run to the camera and want to be seen, reminding us of just how real, how immediate this humanitarian crisis really is. There is also a palpable sense of danger; you can almost smell the filmmakers' sweat as they seem to be risking their lives just to make this rather improvisational piece. How many of those guys with guns on the edges of the fram are actors, and how many are really watching this Englishman with a camera and wondering what he's up to?
It was a hard film to watch... feeling heavy and draining even at its approx. 90 minute running time. Part of the reason it is a tiring ordeal can be chalked up to the strain of trying to understand what we are seeing. The quick-and-dirty filming tactics left much of the dialogue muffled, and subtitles provide only sketchy details. I can listen to that kind of substandard soundtrack for only so long in a theatre without getting a bit weary of it. But Winterbottom's sense of urgency, that feeling of "The world needs to see this now!" makes up for it. We DO need to see this now.
So I share J. Robert's enthusiasm... it's a film everyone should see... NOW. The question is, how? I'm not sure how widely it will be distributed. Keep your eyes and ears open for an opportunity and do yourself the favor of attending.
Here's an excerpt from Michael Atkinson's review at Village Voice:
Jamal, 13, is the savvier of the two, already equipped with a sprinkling of English; twentyish Enayat has the honest face of a toddler and is wary enough to doubt every coyote and money changer they meet. Both are first-time actors cold from refugee camps, and their integration into social landscapes is complete, among their countrymen or out of their element in Iran and Turkey. Little was rehearsed. Winterbottom uses the traits of documentary respectfully; his points of view are not consistently verité, but the textures are intimidatingly real. The odyssey rolls out matter-of-factly, as Jamal and Enayat traverse undeveloped hinterlands and negotiate one border after another before getting to Istanbul, and a sealed cargo box aboard a Mediterranean freighter becomes something of a Calvary for all concerned.
That sequence is prototypical Winterbottom: Locked into darkness with a half-dozen other paying emigrants, including a crying infant, for over 40 hours, the refugees begin unraveling and begging for release. The camera's with them, catching only lighter-flash glimpses of their desperation. Then the baby goes quiet, and once it lands in Trieste we only see the truck get unpacked, methodically, from the outside, not knowing what we'll find inside or who'll still be alive.
The scenes in In This World aren't developed dramatically—they're just presented for their experiential torque (as with a night scramble in the Turkish mountains, the digital photography taking on the creepy, halting minimalism of a struggling download). Winterbottom was set on bare-bones realism, and so the scalding lyricism of ferocious terrain and sociopolitical absurdity seen in, say, Kandahar or A Time for Drunken Horses, is never resourced. In the end, Winterbottom returns to the Pakistani-border refugee camps, where scores of destitute kids smile at the camera, their stories untold.