Road Pictures for Our Time: Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom Is That Rare Western Artist Who Can Depict the Streets of Tehran and Karachi. It's Movie Stars That Trip Him Up

By Quart, Alissa | The American Prospect, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Road Pictures for Our Time: Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom Is That Rare Western Artist Who Can Depict the Streets of Tehran and Karachi. It's Movie Stars That Trip Him Up


Quart, Alissa, The American Prospect


RIGHT NOW A POLITICAL FILMmaker of great talent is making more than one film a year--17 in the last 15 years. That's the good news. The bad news is that his work has yet to be viewed by a substantial audience.

That filmmaker is Michael Winterbottom, director of this summer'sA Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl's memoir of the kidnapping and murder of her husband, reporter Daniel Pearl. The red-carpet attractions of its star, Angelina Jolie, have helped publicize the film, but they have not brought it high box-office returns. The same was true for another of Winterbottom's films, In This World (2002): It received so little distribution when it came out stateside four years ago that if you saw it, you were probably a film critic.

Despite his still small following, Winterbottom deserves to be known as a filmmaker for our time. At 46, the British-born and London-based director can handle, without apparent strain or sanctimony, themes of religious radicalism, national boundary crossing, and poverty. Unlike Sicko's Michael

Moore, Winterbottom is interested in conditions and situations rather than in single issues, single villains, or a single dim-witted, belligerent president who dodged the draft and mangles grammar. Moore and Syriana's radical-chic writer/director Stephen Gaghan are parochial in comparison, pale descendants of a previous generation of filmmakers who offered unique investigations of political corruption--Alan Pakula's The Parallax View (1974), Costa-Gavras'Z (1969), or Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers (1966)--films in which the corruption was centered on a couple of bad guys with mustaches or on the regime of a nation in colonial upheaval.

In contrast, Winterbottom's best film to date, In This World, is about an entire part of the world and how it is linked to Europe through money, labor, and geography. The film's leading characters, two young Afghan men, leave a refugee camp where children make bricks for a living, smuggling themselves via a migratory silk route to London. They buy their way onto trucks, buses, and, most terrifyingly, a nearly airless ship container, traversing Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Italy, and England. Here, as in other films, Winter-bottom appropriates the road movie, creating and becoming the master of a new genre, the political road movie.

Dispensing with the road movie's typical coming-of-age or square-turning-bohemian story lines, the leads of Winterbottom's best films hurtle between the populous, violently devout cities of newspaper headlines--Tehran, Sarajevo, Karachi--places where living, let alone making a movie, is an extreme sport. Among those films are Welcome to Sarajevo, about the war in Bosnia, and The Road to Guantanamo (which he co-directed), a docudrama about three British Muslims captured in Afghanistan, turned over to U.S. forces, and jailed for two years as alleged enemy combatants in Guantanamo. He tends to cast as many nonprofessional actors as he can manage. The leads in In This World were non-actors; after making the film, one of them went as a refugee to the U.K., where he was told he would have to leave before his 18th birthday.

It would seem that Winterbottom, with his production company Revolution Films, sees himself as an activist, or at the very least, an advocate. But trying to get a bead on his ambient politics isn't as easy. In one interview, in that irritating, I-am-a-cipher-movie-person way, Winterbottom resentfully shrugged off the suggestion that he made "political films." Yet he has also said, "If you want to be political, you have to do something in the mainstream, something that is going to affect a number of people." He has derided the Labour Party in print for being too disconnected from the people it represents and, last month, echoing the relativism that is now a habit of mind for the European Left in an interview with The Washington Post: "There are extremists on both sides who want to ratchet up the levels of violence, and hundreds of thousands of people have died because of this. …

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