In 2015, Hassan Fazili, an Afghan film-maker, and his family – his wife and fellow film-maker Fatima Hussaini and their young daughters, Nargis and Zahra – were running out of time. They had fled Afghanistan for Tajikistan 14 months earlier after the Taliban targeted their Kabul arts cafe, and soon Tajikistan would send them back. As their choices narrowed, the Fazilis consulted with Emelie Mahdavian, a California-based documentarian they met in Tajikistan, on the possibility of documenting their journey with the only equipment available: their mobile phones.
Four years later, what began as a few cellphone videos has emerged as Midnight Traveler, a feature-length documentary on one family’s still unfinished journey to safety and stability. The plight of Europe’s largest refugee crisis since the second world war – a million refugees in 2015 alone – is well documented and gutting, on film and in print. Countless headlines on the risks of travel to Europe – downed boats, the photo of Alan Kurdi, a two-year-old who drowned, on the beach in Greece – serve as shorthand for an experience many understand in broad strokes, in unspecific sympathy for someone else’s unfathomable pain and stress.
Midnight Traveler is, intentionally, not one of those stories. The movie, shot entirely by Hassan and his family on three Samsung phones, is less a migration story than the story of a family’s formative years; their liminal status as refugees without a home country is relegated from headline to the background. “There’s already so much information out there in the press that’s journalistic and valid; documentary films made by outsiders who are trying to document what’s happening,” Mahdavian told the Guardian. “What this film can offer is that other side of the story.”
Midnight Traveler is a film not only of the Fazili family’s own words, but of their own creation – what one would record of a family trip, to remember its highlights and mundanities later. Under the Fazilis’ direction, Midnight Traveler steers attention from the collar-grabbing to the soft, nostalgic, logistical and specific. “We wanted the audience to be closer to our happiness, unhappiness, dreams and feelings,” Hassan Fazili told Filmmaker Magazine in January 2019. “We wanted the viewer to feel that they are by our side during the film, to laugh and cry with us, to feel homeless and confused with us so they would not just watch us from a distance.” His camera follows a range of emotions, beyond fear. Nargis, the older daughter, revels next to the foaming sea in Turkey; later, a year into their journey, she bursts into tears from sheer boredom. Hassan films Zahra, the younger daughter, laughing in the Serbian snow and developing boils from the filthy conditions of a refugee camp. The trials of a prolonged migration emerge through details, sometimes terrifying (vile anti-immigrant thugs in Bulgaria threatening to punch Nargis), sometimes subdued (a pages-long list, tacked to a wall, of families waiting for entry to Hungary).
But a trove of home movies do not make a film. Enter Mahdavian, who kept in touch with the family throughout their journey through Afghanistan, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and the film’s conclusion in Hungary, and who sorted through all 300 hours of their footage. (The Fazilis periodically delivered their phones’ memory cards to a messenger, who sent a hard drive to Mahdavian, who speaks Afghan Persian).
From there, she would watch and catalogue all the footage, pulling out the most pivotal and quietly characteristic scenes. “What makes this film what it is is not the dramatic things that happen to them that we expect to see,” she said of her editing process. “For me, it’s the small things – the family fights, the kids playing and dancing and crying.” Thus the footage of running through European fields at dawn to avoid police is kept spare and unheralded; scenes in which Hassan and Fatima bicker and laugh over his compliment to another woman, or in which Nargis discusses with her parents whether or not to cover her hair, are allowed to breathe.
But despite its DIY aesthetic, “a film like this doesn’t become the film that you’re seeing if all it was is mobile-phone footage cut together in Premiere and exported”, said Mahdavian. It’s no small feat of post-production to make phone videos, with no external microphone, both watchable and audible. “The film is really built on the editing and the extensive post-production,” said Su Kim, the film’s co-producer, who shepherded it through sound editing and re-coloring. Ironically, while Mahdavian cut the film to “unclean it up – to avoid editing norms, and to make you aware that they were mobile phones”, the sound team worked to buffer up the audio enough to translate the experience of cell video to a bigger screen.
The phone itself is a constant presence within the film, its screen – showing maps of Turkish countryside, WhatsApp, video of Nargis dancing to Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us played through another phone – shaping both the perception and direction of their journey. “A lot of people have documented how central [the mobile phone] is to the migrant experience,” said Mahdavian. “Whether you are or are not a film-maker, it’s a lifeline for so many people.” A lifeline, and a semblance of control; every member of the Fazili family takes their turn capturing the experience – Fatima films Hassan, Hassan films Zahra, someone films Nargis filming her stuff bear, framed with barbed wire at a detention center on the Hungarian border. “This was a family-generated portrait, not just a father-generated portrait,” Mahdavian said.
As such, the ethics of filming – autobiography of your own family’s painful and vulnerable moments – grow into one of Midnight Traveler’s biggest, and most potent, themes. In a pivotal, masterful scene (one that shouldn’t be spoiled), Hassan recalls a particularly dramatic and scary moment in the family’s journey. The story is told in voiceover, over peaceful footage of the moon and birds. Hassan loves film-making, he says, “but sometimes cinema is so dirty”. For one moment, he thinks not of his family’s safety, but of the drama’s potential on screen. “What a scene you’re in!” he thinks. “This is the best scene in the film.” And in that moment, he says, he hates himself so much.
What happens when the processing of experience becomes inextricable from its recording, when living in the moment becomes simultaneous with understanding how you can use the moment in the story you will tell others? It’s the strange warping of reality familiar to many, whether you’re capturing a “candid” shot of your friends at the bar for Instagram or in the vastly heightened stakes of a migrant’s journey.
For the Fazilis, the ethics of autobiography remain fraught and unresolved, as does the family’s immigration status. In his imagination, Hassan says, the film ends when they reach their destination; in reality, the film ends in Hungary, with their case in limbo. In April 2018, the Fazilis arrived in Germany, where they remain today, both girls in school, according to Mahdavian and Kim. But their asylum application was restarted, putting them back at back square one, still in limbo.