Filmmaker Hassan Fazili fled to Tajikistan with his wife and two daughters in 2015 after the Taliban put out a call for his death. He’d been running a cafe in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul as a meeting place for artists to exchange ideas. His progressive views on men and women mixing were seen by the mullahs as a threat, not to mention the film he’d made about a Taliban commander. A failed asylum application necessitated a risky return to Afghanistan, with his wife Fatima, also a filmmaker, reluctantly donning the requisite burqa.
This is a portrait of systemic global failure towards the world’s most vulnerable.
After a friend’s tip-off that arrest was imminent, the family decided to brave the 3,500-mile journey to seek safety in Europe. Embarking on the perilous Western Balkan migrant route toward Hungary, they shot their experience on three mobile phones. The footage was edited into a feature documentary Midnight Traveler, which won a Special Jury Award for Cinematography at its world premiere in Sundance, and then screened at the Berlinale. Intensely personal, the film is both an engrossing and emotionally affecting account of one family’s perseverance through the specific ordeals of their journey, and a testament to the hardships and resilience of all the many refugees who have had little alternative but to trace similar, uncertain footsteps.
A personal portrait of a harrowing experience
There have already been numerous documentaries made on the refugee crisis, as is only natural given that it’s one of the great humanitarian challenges of our times. Midnight Traveler stands out, not only for its easy, warm intimacy (it’s doubtful a director observing from the outside would have been able to thrust us so snugly into this close-knit family dynamic), but also for its raw, honest depiction of just how disempowering the whole harrowing process of fleeing to the EU through one of the established routes is. There are no European saviours here, and no utopian destination to be found. Ultimately, instead, this is a portrait of systemic global failure towards the world’s most vulnerable. But it’s not in the Fazili family’s appealing, wry-humoured style to make grandstanding political statements. Such a conclusion is there before our eyes, for us to reach ourselves.
The refugee experience of our times is not one of a dangerous journey to assured safety, but rather a prolonged limbo of displacement.
The trap of desperation forces the family to depend completely upon untrustworthy, illegal smugglers and their wholly mercenary motivation. This infuses the film with a suspense more stomach churning than exciting, as we root for the family to survive while realising it’s largely down to luck. Having taken the majority of their money, the ring threatens to kidnap their daughters unless they pay the extra they are demanding. Caught and arrested in Sofia, they are moved into a refugee camp where they wait in limbo for weeks. It seems to offer some pleasant rest and respite – until far-right gangs target the refugees with violence, and the police refuse to intervene. «We’ve come to a place as bad as our own country,» they conclude – a heartbreaking realisation about the degree of hostility rising in a Europe they’d looked to as their ticket to tranquillity and freedom.
Feeling that Bulgaria is no longer safe, the family hightails it to Serbia only to again bide their time in a camp. The days are clocked on screen, approaching the 500 mark as their names sit on a list among countless others waiting for the go-ahead to travel to Hungary to have their asylum cases heard. It hits home that the refugee experience of our times is not one of a dangerous journey to assured safety, but rather a prolonged limbo of displacement, institutional neglect and the alienation of absolute powerlessness, in which bureaucratic frameworks are kept a mystery, rumours are contradictory and the future even one week ahead is uncertain.
Decisions of life and death
From stealing fruit from a neighbour’s tree because smugglers do not bring promised food, to sleeping in a deserted building on a snowy night, the necessary measures of a precarious existence add up. The toll of exhaustion is palpable in the children, Nargis and Zahra, even as their usually upbeat demeanours buoy the film. For the adults, the stress of having to make choices based on minimal information, with stakes of life and death, weighs heavy: To wait for more months stranded in Belgrade for permission to cross legally into Hungary, never knowing if and when it will come, or to take a difficult forest passage with smugglers again, knowing that just a few days ago on the same route a young Afghan girl died? It’s a choice no parent would want to make, and the relatable nature of this family should help to replace callousness with empathy within any audience hardened to the refugee plight.
Filmmaking, ultimately, is a means for the family of exercising agency over a fate so fickle – even though, as Hassan is all too aware, they are locked into a narrative where the «best» footage is that which hurts the most. Making it finally to Hungary, the interminable waiting begins again, this time caged in a prison-like Transit Zone. European dream, or nightmare – the Fazilis refuse to entertain our complacency.