The most remarkable thing about Midnight Traveler is that it exists at all. Not just for how it was filmed, but because of who made it, and what it says about the way the world treats its least fortunate.
Shot on a collection of mobile phones, this new documentary needs only 90 minutes to show a grippingly human story of a family exiled from their country, rejected from safe harbor and ultimately making a nearly 4,000-mile journey across whole continents for a chance at resettlement.
The back story here is that Hassan Fazili, an Afghan filmmaker, made a documentary about a Taliban commander that resulted in the militant Islamist group issuing death threats. That Fazili also operated a café that had the temerity to serve both men and women only upped the bounty, prompting him and his family to escape the country.
But Fazili—a lover of cinema, he says in voiceover narration—filmed his own exile, using three phones. When Midnight Traveler opens, he and his wife, Fatima Hussaini (also a filmmaker) and their two young daughters, Nargis and Zahra, are at the end of a 14-month stay in neighboring Tajikistan, which has denied their asylum request. But with returning home not an option, they set out to find refuge in Europe.
From the outset, the Fazili family’ trek is terrifying. The first day alone involves a roundabout car ride that loops back through Taliban-controlled territory. They make it to Iran, then Turkey, Bulgaria, and several more countries along the way. But rarely is the road ever safe. The family rides in overcrowded vans and the trunks of cars, crosses borders through forests, sleeps on cardboard mats, and is threatened by human smugglers.
Yet for all its inherent peril, Midnight Traveler never loses the raw sweetness of a home movie. A refugee tale shot with a big crew—narrative or documentary—could get operatic quickly. Here, Hassan Fazili and Emelie Mahdavian, who edited and produced the film, keep the focus tight. The result is a vérité mix of deserts rolling past of car windows, cramped quarters in refugee camps, and encounters with nativist gangs as the family pushes into Eastern European countries where the politics of immigration are distressingly familiar to the United States’ own recent attitudes.
There are still genuine cinematic moments, though, often involving Fazili and Hussaini’s daughters. While the girls’ ages are never specified, the older one, Nargis, is probably about 10 or 11 when the film begins and old enough to begin to understand the stakes. But when she walks on a rocky shore during the family’s stay in Istanbul and experiences the lapping Bosporous, her joy and wonderment after a lifetime spent in landlocked countries fills the screen.
Those kinds of moments serve as anchors, intercutting the ups and downs—mostly downs—of the refugee experience with two parents’ attempt to maintain some kind of home life in the most itinerant of circumstances. Days become weeks, and weeks become months. By the time the family is ending a year-plus stay in a Serbian migrant camp and bound for Hungary, a journey that started in 2015 has pushed into early 201. (Fazili, Hussaini, and their daughters are now in Germany, awaiting a ruling on their asylum claim there.)
And though Hassan Fazili is credited as the sole director, it would be unfair to credit just him and Mahdavian, the editor-producer, with Midnight Traveler. From the outset, Hussaini is collecting as much footage as her husband, and as they get slightly older, the daughters take their turns behind the camera, too.
It’s also Hussaini who utters what is essentially this movie’s core philosophy, and a reminder of the human will to survive. “Wherever we can go,” she says early on, explaining to her daughters why they need to escape to some strange, far-flung place, “that’s where we’re going,”