'Midnight Traveler': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Old Chilly Pictures
A valuable, first-hand refugees’ story.

Hassan Fazili and his family chronicle their dangerous journey from Afghanistan to Germany, seeking asylum.

Cinematically modest but full of social and political urgency, Midnight Traveler uses the power of three smartphones to reveal one migrant family’s desperate search for a safe haven in the world. In 2015, Hassan Fazili, an Afghan filmmaker little known in the West, made a television documentary about a Taliban leader who had abandoned violence. After the film was broadcast, its subject was murdered and Fazili learned that the Taliban had targeted him for death, too. Fazili, his filmmaker wife Fatima Hussaini and their two young daughters set off on what would be a 3,500-mile, three-year journey seeking asylum, the entire family recording their experience on their phones. Those scenes became Midnight Traveler, a verite film whose visual limitations are offset by its immediacy.

The documentary chronicles the daily tedium of one refugee camp after another, sometimes punctuated by the high drama of clandestine border crossings and violent bigotry against migrants. The intimate view of this particular displaced family echoes strongly with news from the U.S.-Mexican border. And the hatred expressed toward them as migrants is familiar from countries around the world, adding global resonance.

The story begins in Tajikistan, where the Fazilis had been waiting for 14 months for word on their asylum application. When the request is denied, they are deported and head back to Afghanistan on what appears, superficially, to be a mundane road trip, fidgety kids in the back seat. Then they stop at a gas station near the border and Fatima takes out a burka. The pressures on the family are often displayed in such small moments, with little comment. Fatima, stoic and practical throughout, mentions only how hot the burka is.

They soon decide that Afghanistan is too dangerous and we see them set off again on foot toward Europe, sometimes traveling with other migrants, sleeping for days at a time on the ground. One night, along with a small group of other people, they walk through the woods to cross surreptitiously from Turkey to Bulgaria, where a safe house is waiting.

But the police find them and they land in the first of the refugee camps, not a tent city of popular imagination, but a crumbling barracks-like structure. In another small revelation, we see the younger daughter, Zahra, whose face and arms are covered in bedbug bites.

The older daughter, Nargis, is among the film’s most vivid presences. At around age 10 (the children’s ages are never specified), she is old enough to be aware of the dangers around them, young enough to be a fearful child. Nargis’ voiceover recalls how frightened she was when “a man tried to punch me,” on a street in Bulgaria where a gang of thugs attacked migrants, including the Fazili family. Hassan stepped in and blocked the blow to his daughter. The camera doesn’t capture that scene, but is turned on its aftermath. Nargis is sobbing. Hassan has a bruised face.

The episode is tragic and horrifying, but also an example of how often this documentary fills in its missing pieces with voiceover. It’s not that we need or want to see more violence, but that the seams of the filmmaking are evident, sometimes in a distracting way. While the jittery camera and partial views add to the doc’s authenticity, that scattershot approach doesn’t always sustain the narrative.

Despite these lapses, Emelie Mahdavian, a producer and writer of the film as well as its editor, puts together as smooth a story as you can expect given the hundreds of fragments and hours she had to work with. Gretchen Jude’s percussive, electronic score helps hold it all together.

Oddly, the biggest missing piece is Fazili himself, who remains a remote figure, and not always because he is behind the camera. He looks understandably morose and troubled, but rarely reveals what he is thinking. It wouldn’t have destroyed the audience’s shared experience of the film if we had been given more of his thoughts and personality along the way. 

Leaving Bulgaria, the Fazilis arrive in a better camp in Serbia, where they stay for more than a year, until they are approved to leave. They are now in Germany, waiting to see if their application to stay will be approved.  

Midnight Traveler will eventually be shown on television as part of the POV series, which is a perfect fit for this small-scale, personal document. It doesn’t attain the level of art, but stands as a family’s joint testimony, heartfelt and heartbreaking, particular yet hauntingly representative.

Production company: Old Chilly Pictures
Cast: Nargis Fazili, Zahra Fazili, Fatima Hussaini, Hassan Fazili

Director: Hassan Fazili
Screenwriter: Emelie Mahdavian
Producers: Emelie Mahdavian, Su Kim
Cameras: Fatima Hussaini, Hassan Fazili, Nargis Fazili, Zahra Fazili
Editor: Emelie Mahdavian
Music: Gretchen Jude
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

87 minutes