Midnight Traveler: a powerful documentary on refugees filmed on a phone | Documentary films

In 2015, Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili and his family – his wife and fellow filmmaker Fatima Hussaini and their young daughters, Nargis and Zahra – were short on time. They had fled Afghanistan for Tajikistan 14 months earlier after the Taliban targeted their Kabul arts cafe, and soon Tajikistan would send them back. As their choices narrowed, the Fazilis consulted Emelie Mahdavian, a Californian documentary filmmaker they met in Tajikistan, about documenting their trip with the only equipment available: their cell phones.

Four years later, what started as a few cellphone videos has become Midnight Traveler, a feature-length documentary about one family’s still-unfinished journey to safety and stability. The fate of Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II – one million refugees in 2015 alone – is well documented and heartbreaking, on film and on paper. Countless headlines about the risks of traveling in Europe – downed boats, the photo of two-year-old Alan Kurdi who drowned, on the beach in Greece – serve as shorthand for an experience that many understand in broad strokes, in unspecific sympathy for someone else’s unfathomable pain and stress.

Midnight Traveler is intentionally not one of those stories. The film, shot entirely by Hassan and his family on three Samsung phones, is less a story of migration than a story of a family’s formative years; their liminal status as refugees without a country of origin is relegated from the headlines to the background. “There is already so much information in the press that is journalistic and valid; documentary films made by foreigners trying to document what is happening,” Mahdavian told the Guardian. “What this movie can offer is that other side of the story.”

Midnight Traveler is a film not just of the Fazili family’s own words, but of their own making – what one would record of a family trip, only to later remember its highlights and mundane ones. Under the direction of the Fazilis, Midnight Traveler directs the attention from the col-catching to the soft, nostalgic, logistic and specific. “We wanted the audience to be closer to our happiness, our unhappiness, our dreams and our feelings,” Hassan Fazili told Filmmaker Magazine in January 2019. “We wanted the viewer to feel with us during the movie, to laugh and cry with us, to feel homeless and confused with us so they don’t just watch us from a distance.His camera tracks a range of emotions, beyond fear. Nargis, the eldest daughter, revels by the foaming sea in Turkey; later, a year into their journey, she bursts into tears of boredom Hassan films Zahra, the youngest daughter, laughing in the Serbian snow and developing boils from the filthy conditions of a refugee camp.The hardships of protracted migration emerge through details, sometimes terrifying (despicable anti-immigrant thugs in Bulgaria threatening to hit Nargis), sometimes hushed (a long list, glued to the wall, of families awaiting entry in Hungary).

But a treasure trove of amateur films does not make a film. Enter Mahdavian, who stayed in touch with the family throughout their journey through Afghanistan, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and the film’s conclusion to Hungary, and sorted through the 300 hours of their footage. (The Fazilis periodically handed over memory cards from their phones to a courier, who sent a hard drive to Mahdavian, who speaks Afghan Persian).

Photography: Oscilloscope

From there, she watched and cataloged all the footage, extracting the most crucial and quietly characteristic scenes. “What makes this movie what it is isn’t the dramatic things that happen to them that we expect to see,” she said of her editing process. “For me, it’s the little things – family arguments, kids playing, dancing and crying.” Thus, the images of racing across European fields at dawn to avoid the police are preserved and not heralded; scenes in which Hassan and Fatima bicker and laugh at his compliment to another woman, or in which Nargis discusses with his parents whether or not to cover their hair, are allowed to breathe.

But despite its DIY aesthetic, “a movie like this doesn’t become the movie you see if it was just cellphone footage cut together in Premiere and exported,” Mahdavian said. It’s no mean post-production feat to make phone videos, without an external microphone, both watchable and audible. “The film is really built on editing and extensive post-production,” said Su Kim, the film’s producer, who guided it through sound editing and recoloring. Ironically, while Mahdavian was cutting the film to “clean it up – to avoid editing the standards and to make you aware that these were cell phones”, the sound team worked to buffer the audio sufficiently to translate the cellular video experience to a greater one. screen.

The phone itself is a constant presence in the film, its screen – showing maps of the Turkish countryside, WhatsApp, a video of Nargis dancing to Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us played via another phone – shaping to both the perception and the direction of their journey. “Many people have documented how [the mobile phone] is about the experience of migrants,” said Mahdavian. “Whether you’re a filmmaker or not, it’s a lifeline for so many people.” A lifeline and a semblance of control; each member of the Fazili family captures the experience in turn – Fatima films Hassan, Hassan films Zahra, someone films Nargis filming his teddy bear, framed in barbed wire in a border detention center Hungarian. “It was a family-generated portrait, not just a father-generated portrait,” Mahdavian said.

A picture of Midnight Traveler
Photography: Oscilloscope

As such, the ethics of filming – an autobiography of your own family’s painful and vulnerable times – becomes one of Midnight Traveler’s most important and powerful themes. In a pivotal and masterful scene (which shouldn’t be spoiled), Hassan recalls a particularly dramatic and chilling moment from the family’s journey. The story is told in voiceover, over peaceful images of the moon and birds. Hassan likes to make films, he says, “but sometimes the cinema is so dirty”. For a moment, he’s not thinking about the safety of his family, but about the potential for on-screen drama. “What scene are you in! ” he thinks. “It’s the best scene in the movie.” And in that moment, he says, he hates himself so much.

What happens when processing the experience becomes inseparable from recording it, when living the moment becomes simultaneous with understanding how you can use the moment in the story you will tell others? It’s the strange warping of reality familiar to many, whether you’re capturing a ‘straightforward’ photo of your friends at the bar for Instagram or in the vastly heightened stakes of a migrant’s journey.

For the Fazilis, the ethics of autobiography remain strained and unresolved, as does the family’s immigration status. In his imagination, says Hassan, the film ends when they reach their destination; in reality, the film ends in Hungary, with their case in limbo. In April 2018, the Fazilis arrived in Germany, where they are today, both attending school, according to Mahdavian and Kim. But their asylum application was relaunched, putting them back to square one, still in limbo.

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