Sobering in its harsh realities, Midnight Traveler is a marriage of beauty and terror, a balancing act of love and war.
In a powerful documentary made in the face of racism and xenophobia, Hassan Fazili and his family flee Afghanistan after a bounty is placed on the filmmaker’s head by the Taliban. Though the bounty and its reasons aren’t fully disclosed, the film is much more about the struggles of escape and survival than about the Taliban. Sobering in its harsh realities, Midnight Traveler is a marriage of beauty and terror, a balancing act of love and war. With over 3,000 miles traveled in search of safety, we see a family brought together and pushed to limits no one should know. Bureaucracy challenges the initial journey from Afghanistan to Tajikistan, as Fazili and his family are thrown into more intense danger as the lead actor from one of his short films is shot and killed by the Taliban. Faced with few choices, the filmmaker takes his family on the road to Europe. Not only does the film show family ties strengthened by the threat from terrorists, it is an eye-opening commentary on asylum-seeking refugees from the Middle East, encapsulating the political conflicts that seemingly become more important than the safety of humans beings.
By shooting the film entirely on three mobile phones, Hassan Fazili is resourceful with his filmmaking and with his long journey to safety. Finances aren’t discussed, but it becomes clear very quickly the family have to take chances when travelling, often in unwelcoming areas also ravaged by political vitriol and uncertainty. The film is a testament to mobile phone filmmaking. Unlike the luxuries afforded by, say, Soderbergh, using an iPhone and specialized lens kits to film his 2018 thriller Unsane, Fazili brilliantly accentuates the real story with this vernacular style. Narration is taken in turns by the family, serving to explore identity in the form of the two daughters and the challenge they face adapting to new areas. Nargis, the eldest daughter (ages never specified, she is around 10 years old), is old enough to acknowledge the present dangers but young enough to have a fearful naivety towards her surroundings. Nargis is targeted by violence herself by a man in Bulgaria who attempts to punch her. Though the camera doesn’t capture this, we see the aftermath and the bruised face of Fazili after he steps in to block the blow. Horrifying narration consistently maintains the threat faced by Fazili and his family when the camera isn’t rolling.
As the film documents their struggles, the family are able to express themselves and discuss personal thoughts and opinions. Never once losing focus of its subjects’ humanity, the documentarian process strengthens the family’s pursuit for a better, safer future for the daughters, which remains the film’s focus as much as it is about fleeing the Taliban. Germany is the final destination for the family and their quest for asylum, crossing from Turkey to a safe house in Bulgaria, and penultimately Serbia, where they spend several months waiting for approval to enter Germany. The authenticity of the story is strengthened by the filming approach but does not always reinforce the narrative of these journeys between different countries. But woven in battle with the politics of terrorism and war, a rich intimacy shines through, as the film presents for Western audience one Middle Eastern family’s tragedy, conflicts and hardships.