On the surface, Hassan Fazili‘s Midnight Traveler seems to have all the makings of a Hollywood thriller. After his previous documentary, Peace in Afghanistan, aired on Afghan national television in 2015, the film’s main subject was assassinated by the Taliban and Fazili was himself officially marked for death, as well. He and his wife, Fatima Hussaini, who is also an acclaimed filmmaker in her own right, and their two young daughters fled the country and have been on the run ever since.
But this is not an edge-of-your-seat suspense drama, nor is it even just another heavy human rights issue film. Certainly, Midnight Traveler fits into the growing category of documentaries on the global refugee crisis, but this is a unique feature that stands apart from all the other “important” works covering the stories of migrants crossing dangerous terrain and encountering unsympathetic immigration and asylum policies. Fazili doesn’t lean that much on the hardships of the foursome’s journey. There is plenty of that, yet also so much more.
Midnight Traveler is shot entirely on mobile phones, which obviously was a matter of limited convenience — unseen in the film, Fazili still had to send off his footage, whenever he could, like a spy delivering secret communications at special checkpoints, to free up space for more footage on his memory cards. Yet, in addition to the handheld journalistic feel of the format, much of the film also has a home movie aesthetic, as if Fazili and family were modern-day Barstows chronicling their trip to Disneyland. The clan in Midnight Traveler aren’t tourists, though they do visit a carnival, enjoy some fireworks, play in the snow. There are, especially thanks to the children, many happy moments here.
And some less-than-happy moments that have little to do with their refugee status and migration. In one scene, Fazili and Hussaini have a common marital fight over his complimenting another woman on her looks. This sort of drama, as well as other mundane moments along the way, provides a level of empathy that most films treading the same ground lack. It’s not just because of the first-person perspective, which is not only from Fazili’s POV since Hussaini and their older daughter take part in the filming, plus producer Emelie Coleman Mahdavian can almost be credited as a co-director given her collaborative role. It’s because the family is so normal, familiar, with their cute kids and ordinary problems, existing within and without their current predicament.
We get to know the family in all their basic humanity, so the scenes specific to the refugee experience — transport in car trunks, sleeping in fields, denials of asylum protection, life in various camps, some of them rather prison-like, and violence from anti-immigrant thugs — more greatly affect us. This isn’t another reach for sympathy regarding thousands of refugees at once. It’s not the migrant experience. Midnight Traveler is about Fazili and Hussaini and their girls, in their journey, in their dilemmas as exiles and outlaws searching for a new home, as well their dilemmas as filmmakers balancing their roles in the family with their roles recording the whole process.
This is an important film. In its intimate depiction of asylum seekers traversing the globe. In the home-movie road-movie dramatic adventure of it all. In the way the story ends but isn’t over. And in its significance to documentary film and filmmaking, both as a mode of reportage and expression and as a display of its own craft and choices. It’s surely the most powerfully purgatorial nonfiction feature to come out of political penalty, with footage captured primarily with cellphones and smuggled to places the director can’t go since This is Not a Film. And while that’s a very specific sort, Midnight Traveler is nevertheless a masterpiece, too.