A Small Miracle of a Documentary in a Large Refugee Crisis
DIRECTOR: HASSAN FAZILI/2019
On paper, I can’t believe this documentary works. A three-year journey? Sounds like an editing nightmare. Shot on mobile phones? Sounds like a headache to watch. One of life’s most difficult journeys from a first-person point of view? Sounds impossible not to smother us in self-pity.
But Midnight Traveler is a little miracle, a small family film wrapped in global events. Somehow the time it chronicles, the low-budget production, and the personal focus are its greatest strengths, setting it apart from the type of documentaries you’ve become used to.
Surprisingly focused, winsomely shot, and emotionally honest.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was recognized with a Special Jury Award, follows the Fazili family as they flee from Afghanistan and attempt to build a new life in Europe when the patriarch, Hassan, is marked by the Taliban. He and his wife, Hatima, and their two young daughters, Nargis and Zahra, travel by foot and wheels through city, desert, and forest to petition for asylum in any country that will take them. Will they use smugglers to cross borders? How will they fund their travels? Can they raise a family without a home?
The film is making its way through the festival circuit, and I hope it will find a wider release afterward. I caught it at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo., where it was recognized as a recipient of the True Life Fund, allowing viewers to provide financial support to the Fazili family.
2018 was a Year for the Pop Doc, but unlike the water cooler hits Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Three Identical Strangers, the autobiographical storytelling removes any barriers between you and the subjects. Hassan and Hatima, both filmmakers, are not just documenting a humanitarian crisis—they are documenting their family’s lives like any parents with a camera. Within 10 minutes, I felt my heart pang for them, for their losses and for their fears. They were already developed characters in the stories of their lives, full of personality and individual identities. When Hassan tells the story of a friend who joins the Taliban and what happens when the Taliban makes him their enemy, it’s not just another “You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next” Buzzfeed story—it’s an incredible story a friend told you, no matter what your political stance on immigration policy was when you started watching.
But even as we watch Nargis and Zahra crash on couches and bedbug-infested bunks, even as we see Hatima huddle in a ditch on the side of the road, even as title cards tell of times their phones were taken away, this film never falters unders the weight of the world. Even during an escape, families tease each other and find excuses to laugh, and they find time to discuss religious and cultural issues. The sky is still full of birds and sunsets, and there will always be first snows. Children will brush their hair and dance to pop songs, and their silhouettes will never not look beautiful in the sunshine. Even with no buttoned-up resolution for the Fazili family or for the geopolitical predicament they’re tangled in, their film does not lose hope that a resolution will come.
Yes, Midnight Traveler is a little miracle. Surprisingly focused, winsomely shot, and emotionally honest, the story of Hassan, Hatima, Nargis, and Zahra is one to look for on a streaming service or in theater near you.