MIDNIGHT TRAVELER di Hassan Fazili premiered in World Cinema Documentary Competition of the Sundance Film Festival, and also screened at Panorama section of the Berlinale where it got the Ecumenical Jury Award. Shot on three mobile phones, it offers an insight into the personal story of Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili and his family, who were forced to leave their country because of death threats. This is a film that shares an uncomfortable first-hand illegal immigration experience, but it is also a portrait of a family in conditions of constant uncertainty.
Back in Afghanistan, Hassan Fazili worked on a number of theatre plays and TV-series, produced several shorts and ran a cultural space called Art Cafe, known as a place of gathering for artists and causing trouble in conservative society. In 2014 he made a documentary called Peace in Afghanistan about a Taliban commander who decided to return to civilian life. Shortly after the film was shown on local TV, the character of the film was killed, and Fazili got a message that there was a bounty that Taliban put for him. Fazili and his family fled to Tajikistan and made attempts of apply for an asylum, but after a number of refusals decided to make to plead for refugee status in Europe. To get their case reviewed they had to take up a journey of illegal immigrants, that took them about three years, and documented this using their mobile phones.
Fazili’s family left their home in early 2015, and had to take the so-called Balkan route in about a year. Late 2015 was the beginning of the European migrant crisis. In the mass migration flow from Middle East, Syrians made up to 50%, and Afghan people were the second biggest group, making about 20% of those entering Europe. In order be able to escape and to get their cases heard, most of the immigrants have to illegally cross the borders, including taking the dangerous route over the Mediterranean sea from Turkey to Greece or Bulgaria. In 2015 part of the Balkan route became even more life-threatening because of restrictions imposed by local governments. The infamous case of Alan Kurdi, a 4-year-old who drowned on his way to Greece, has been a shock to the world. This revealed how much refugees risk, while being forced to pay huge sums of money and having no guarantees of safety.
Fazili’s MIDNIGHT TRAVELER was created in conditions closely connected to this context. It opens up with a sequence of cozy family videos and proceeds as a family story: Hassan Fazili, his wife Fatima Hussaini (also a filmmaker and women rights activist) and the older daughter Nargis take turns behind the camera and frame each other, sharing their thoughts and private life. The film gives a warm and sentimental account of Fazili’s family dynamics, it does not try to document all the details and values a personalized take over a detached observation.
Fazili and Fatima humorously argue over his compliment to their neighbour, Fatima learns to ride a bike, Nargis cries out of boredom and later has her first talk to parents whether she has to cover her hair. This could be called a family film, however the cameras capture roads, city suburbs, refugee camps, angry citizens and fences that constitute the reality around.
Once they leave their house, their world becomes a never-ending liminal space that hardly offers any kind of stability or certainty, and this feeling breaks through the family portrait that the film tends to focus on. MIDNIGHT TRAVELER is not aiming to reveal anything shocking, but as the story unfolds the tension between the personal and the political constantly comes into the sight. This side of the film includes dealing with smugglers, crossing the borders in the woods, being neglected by local police stations, being imprisoned, or having no place to stay at night. One of the particularly heavy scenes happens at a “legal” space in Bulgarian refugee camp. There was a confrontation between the camp residents and the angry citizens belonging to a far-right group, involving the police that fails to bring safety. The conflict itself never really appears on the screen but is revealed as a troubling contrast between the disturbed people and the cheerful interviewer next day. The more time passes by, the higher the fences on the screen are: this is supposed to bring the order in, but in this is a symbol of aggressive power imposed on the immigrants, who are forced to stay in such spaces for years facing enforced apathy and not being capable of taking the responsibilities for their own lives.
MIDNIGHT TRAVELER is a multi-layered portrait of people and time: personal thoughts, immigrant diary, family image, crisis testimony and subjective experience connect with each other and offer a unique insight into a story of people that are very frequently viewed in Europe as “others” and dangerous even at the state level. The story extends beyond the screen: when the film was first shown at Sundance, Hassan Fazili’s case already started to be reviewed, however, he could not attend the festival because of his refugee status. Currently his family’s position is stable after a 3500-mile journey, but they are still on their way for adapting to new life after almost three years of constant anxiety.