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Catch as Catch Can

Here is a potentially remarkable career taking shape. A sprightly 42 (and looking considerably younger than that), Michael Winterbottom has already directed some two dozen films and telefilms. Not only is Winterbottom very good — in the course of the last year and a half, he has premiered new films at three of the world’s leading festivals — he’s also restless, fidgeting his way from one genre and filmmaking format to the next, refusing to be pinned down. He is one of contemporary cinema’s indefatigable explorers, as comfortable shooting in Manchester as in Peshawar or Dubai.

Now, fittingly, he has completed two complementary new films that, harking back to his 1997 Welcome to Sarajevo, have their eyes and ears open to a world much larger than England and light-years away from Hollywood. The first, In This World, is an unnerving near-documentary about the travails of Afghan refugees attempting to immigrate to Western Europe, shot on digital video using a tiny, consumer-grade camera. The second, Code 46, is a bigger-budget sci-fi noir in which a detective (Tim Robbins) falls for the woman whom he is investigating (Samantha Morton) — a woman suspected of selling counterfeit visas to those seeking passage beyond the heavily fortified borders of a futuristic Shanghai. Both films are concerned with many of the same gnarly issues (immigration, globalization, communication) and seem, no matter their vast aesthetic disparities, to have significantly influenced one another. In their proximity, they form two sides of a single, socially conscious coin.

“Certainly, in making In This World, we were aware of the extremes that exist in the world in a much more dramatic way than if we were sitting in London, or even New York,” Winterbottom says in a mile-a-minute parlance that could peg him as Quentin Tarantino’s Brit cousin. “When you go to a country like Pakistan, you have people living on the very edge of poverty — the refugees in the camps where we visited — and on the other hand you have people who have access to Internet, satellite TV, mobile phones and all the other trappings of the modern world. So, you have these two worlds coexisting — a world that could almost be from any time in history, it’s so simple, and then this sophisticated world on top. That was the idea of Code 46, to bring together those kind of extremes.”

Winterbottom and I are chatting midway through the Toronto Film Festival, where both of his latest films are being presented, along with a third (Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things) he merely produced. “I love the idea that you find things as you go along,” says Winterbottom on the subject of his semi-improvisational working methods. “For me, it would be incredibly boring to know, in the beginning, exactly what the film is like and then simply go out later and make it. It’s much more fun to feel like you’re finding out what’s happening as you go along, that there’s the possibility of something happening, that day, that you’re not expecting. Maybe it’s just that I don’t have a very good imagination, but I find that things that happen by accident tend to be more interesting than things you plan and plan for. Obviously, that’s particularly the case with In This World, because the characters really were people that we met along the way, and a lot of the incidents were too.

“I don’t particularly like the idea that there’s an arc to the story and that therefore in this scene you have to convey this bit of information or emotion. I like more the feeling that, of course, there is a shape to the story, but that each scene should feel right, should be true at that moment, and that gradually you accumulate these moments of truth until you get enough of them together that it becomes a story that’s interesting.”