By Sam Molineaux
English film director Michael Winterbottom is known for his stylish, personal and socially committed approach to filmmaking, evident in movies such as his Thomas Hardy adaptation Jude, the Bosnian war drama Welcome To Sarajevo and his most recent film In This World. The director’s grounding in TV documentaries seems to manifest itself in serious, often depressing subject matter, though he’s not beyond the odd quirky twist. Winterbottom surprised many with last year’s drug-fueled documentary-style comedy 24-Hour Party People, a side-splitter based upon the “mad” ’90s-era Manchester music scene that was nominated a Golden Palm at Cannes and won for best production at the 2002 British Independent Film Awards.
In This World sees the director firmly back in bleak territory. Set against the backdrop of current events in the Middle East, it’s his response to the escalating hostility in Britain and Europe towards refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants. The film, shot in early 2002, follows two Afghan refugees on a cross-country trek from their camp in Peshawar, Pakistan through Iran, Turkey, Italy, France and finally arriving in England. Shot on digital video using actual refugees as “actors,” the docudrama is a thought-provoking combination of cutting-edge film techniques and present-day issues. It has already won three awards at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, and is being released Stateside as part of the Sundance Film Series this September.
Below The Line: What was your artistic vision for In This World?
Winterbottom: The idea of the film was to make a road movie where there was no script or story. We’d just take two people and allow a journey, and the film would be as vivid and honest a version of their journey as possible.
BTL: You covered a lot of ground. Was it a grueling trip?
Winterbottom: It was a mammoth journey through very interesting places, both physically and culturally. But it was fantastic fun and I think everyone felt like they’d seen part of the world from a point of view that they hadn’t experienced before.
BTL: Did you film it in one continuous stretch?
Winterbottom: Tony Grisoni, the writer, and I went over and did a test-run journey from Peshawar to Istanbul, and then the crew and the two actors did the journey together. Once we set off we carried on until we got to the end, which took about nine weeks.
BTL: Were there any countries where you weren’t allowed to film?
Winterbottom: We didn’t have permission to film in Turkey, so we had about a week break before we decided to go over the border as tourists. Because we were filming on DV camera and we were a very small crew, it was quite easy for us to look like we weren’t really filming, or to look like just tourists. Towards the end of the film there’s a sequence where Jamal smuggles himself into Britain on the Eurostar train, and Eurostar were completely uncooperative, so most of it was done with a hidden camera just shooting stuff on the train without them knowing.
BTL: What size was your crew?
Winterbottom: On set there was Marcel Zyskind, the cameraman; Stuart Wilson, the sound recordist; myself and the two refugees. And then off set there were the two producers Anita Overland and Andrew Eaton, and a runner. Then the writer Tony Grisoni and researcher Fiona [Neilson] were a couple of days ahead of us doing research work before we got there. We had a small local crew with us at varying times: in Pakistan and Turkey we just had a travel agent with us, and in Iran we had a small film production unit, because in Iran we needed more film permissions.
BTL: Tell me about working with your sound recordist and cameraman.
Winterbottom: Stuart has done recording on three or four of my films. I don’t like to have a boom on set, or anything where you can see the sound being recorded because it attracts attention, and Stuart is really comfortable doing everything with radio mics. On Party People he had up to 16 radio mics, but this was relatively simple; we had three or four at most. I liked that Stuart was used to working that way, plus I like him a lot. He’s very used to working abroad, very used to working radios and working in a discreet way and still getting good results. In terms of personality I knew he would be interested in doing the journey as opposed to simply putting up with it. This was Marcel’s first job as [principle] cameraman. He was only 21 or 22 when we shot In This World, and very enthusiastic. He’d done a lot of DV stuff so he was used to the equipment, and again, very keen on the idea and enthusiastic about going to those countries.
BTL: What ideas did they have that shaped the finished film?
Winterbottom: It wasn’t so much about ideas, but more about the detail of working. The film is very simple. Stuart’s job was to try and get the sound as best he could, Marcel’s job was to try and film the story as best he could. In doing a film where there wasn’t a script and using nonprofessional actors, we might do things two, three or four times, and each time it would be different. In Marcel’s case when you’re shooting what’s happening as it happens, you’re constantly relying on split-second judgment. So though the idea was very simple, I had to rely on his perception, and that’s to do as much with attitude and commitment as it is with any specific technical skill. Obviously filming can be technically very complicated, but we didn’t arrange anything and we had no lights whatsoever, so it wasn’t complicated technically. All the scenes posed the same questions like, what am I interested in filming? Do I want to be close to someone’s face, do I want to be a long way away? Do I want to be on this person or that person? These aren’t difficult questions, but they are very subjective. Obviously that’s what filmmaking is about, it’s about choosing what you want to show and choosing what you want to watch. Marcel was very good at that.
BTL: One of the more memorable scenes is when you were filming at night in the snowy mountains on the Turkish border. What type of difficulties did that present?
Winterbottom: In a way it was very easy. Again, we had no lights, because obviously if they’re being smuggled over a mountain at night and they want to be hidden, they’re not going to be carrying any lights with them. And being in the mountains there’s no light from any buildings, so basically we just used the night vision on the camera. In that scene the problem was more with the actors. On some parts of the journey Jamal had complained about doing certain things and I thought it would be a problem to get him to keep walking up and down out there in the cold and dark. But it was the first time he’d ever seen snow and he was very excited so he was running up and down in the snow having a great time, as we were trying to get him to look like he wasn’t enjoying himself.
BTL: Everything was shot on DV. Was that a choice or a necessity?
Winterbottom: It was both really. The great thing about the PD150 is it’s a small camera, so you start to shoot things a slightly different way because it’s freer. You can wave it around a lot more, you can go higher and lower, and it has a lot more flexibility. The way we wanted to shoot with such a small crew and to go into markets and through border crossings on public buses and essentially be invisible, meant that DV was the obvious choice. It was a necessity in that if we’d had 35mm gear we would have had to start controlling more and more. It would have become more fictional, whereas with the DV camera we could be more observational. With DV I think you can reinvent the road movie because you can actually go on a journey without any sense of where you’re going to film, so rather than the journey being a metaphor for some other meaning, you can actually make a film that is purely about the journey.
BTL: You were filming shortly after September 11. Did you face hostility, filming in some of these countries?
Winterbottom: When Tony Grisoni and I went on the research trip in October and November, 2001, it was when the bombing had just started. Then we went over in February, 2002 and shot the film in February, March and April, 2002. What we found was that every single person—regardless of whether they were Pakistanis or Afghans who had fled the Soviets, the Mujahadeen, or the Taliban or refugees who had fled the American bombing—every single one of them was against the bombing in Afghanistan. Everyone thought it should stop. But that kind of political hostility didn’t spread into personal hostility. We went to anti-American demonstrations and we never had any hassles ourselves.
BTL: Your next film Code 46 is also filmed in some far-flung places. Was it informed by anything you experienced filming In This World?
Winterbottom: Code 46 is a love story set slightly in the future in a kind of world where there’s a division between people who live in the desert in poverty and chaos, and in cities in a very controlled, comfortable, modern-skyscraper existence. In some ways it was influenced by In This World. We filmed it in Shanghai, India, Dubai and London. Again it was a very small crew, and some of the same people. Stuart and Marcel were both on the crew as well, but this time we shot on 35mm.