Q&A with Michael Winterbottom | Picturehouse reDiscover

We sat down with the prolific director to celebrate the 20th anniversary of In This World.

Issy Macleod

24 Nov 23

Twenty years ago, director Michael Winterbottom told a story ripped straight from the headlines. In This World is a remarkably prescient docu-drama told from the perspective of two Afghan refugees – played by non-professional actors Jamal Udin Torabi and Enayatullah – as they chart a desperate path from Pakistan to London to escape conflict. Winterbottom's film never shies away from the harsh realities of those displaced from their homes and desperately crossing borders to find safety, and as the world continues to grapple with war across all its corners, it's a story that speaks volumes.

To celebrate the film's 20th anniversary, and its screening as part of reDiscover, we sat down with the director to discuss his experience making the film and how his radical approach brought an often-distant issue down to an audience's eye level.

I hoped you could start by speaking about the circumstances around In This World's creation, especially its journey from conception to screen.

At the time there was a lot of talk about refugees arriving in the UK. The papers were very hostile. So it felt like it would be interesting to see the sort of journey people were making - to travel with them and experience the journey from their point of view.

At the time the biggest group of refugees arriving were Afghan- so we started talking to people who had managed to get to London. From them, we built up a picture of the 'typical' journey. We then went to Peshawar in Pakistan - a city which at the time had 1 million Afghan refugees. We talked to people there - and from there Tony Grisoni and I travelled the route that many people take - overland to Iran, through Iran to Turkey and from there into Europe.

We wrote an outline of the story - essentially a map of the journey - and from that, we got the money from the BBC and - I think - the Film Consortium.

The blurring of lines between non-professional actors and characters in the film is essential in creating a lived-in world. How did you approach collaborating with those who'd never acted before, and how did their lived experience as refugees inform the work?

Once we started to make the film - the first thing was to cast our two main characters. The casting director- Wendy Brazzington - and I went to Peshawar and started meeting people. In the end, we chose Jamal and Ennayatullah. In a film like this, the casting is the most important thing. The filming was very observational. So their character, their behaviour, their relationship really came from Jamal and Ennayatullah themselves.

Are you still in contact with anyone in the film?
Yes. We kept in contact with both of them for a while. We are still in contact with Jamal.

Twenty years on, the story of the film is still sadly prescient.
Yes. If anything the situation for refugees has got worse. When we filmed In This World there was a refugee centre at Sangatte - near Calais. The British press was continually complaining about it - and eventually, it was closed down. That led to the refugees having to live on the streets of Calais - and then the development of the Jungle - until that was cleared away.

What would you say to someone who might be seeing the film for the first time?
People like Jamal and Ennayatullah in our film make epic, heroic journeys to try and build a better life. We should celebrate them when they succeed. Instead, when they get here we treat them like criminals and hold them for years in the terrible hostile environment of our asylum system.

As told to Issy Macleod. Edited by Lara Peters.

In This World screens at Picturehouse Cinemas from 1 Dec as part of reDiscover, our strand reintroducing the best films of yesterday. Picturehouse Members go free. Get tickets now.