August 6, 2020  (Web Review)

Midnight Traveler

(2020) 90 min. In English & Persian w/ English subtitles. DVD: $34.99. Oscilloscope (avail. from most distributors).

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

The world’s refugee crisis is often treated in relatively abstract terms, in documentaries and news reports showing great masses of people moving across borders or housed in makeshift detention camps. Hassan Fazili’s film offers a more personal, intimate perspective. Shot entirely on cell phones, it follows his departure from Afghanistan with his wife Fatima Hussaini and their daughters Nargis and Zahra after he was threatened by the Taliban, and the family’s long, arduous journey to safety—if not security—in Europe. As Fazili relates midway in the film, his troubles began when, while running a progressive Arts Café in Kabul, he fell afoul of a mullah who issued a call for a boycott; they escalated when he made a film about a Taliban leader who had renounced violence. A friend who had joined the Taliban (and later died in prison) warned Fazili that he was marked for death, so the family fled to Tajikistan, where they applied for asylum. It is here that the narrative proper begins: after fourteen months the application was denied and the family deported back to Afghanistan. Rather than remain, they began a trek that ultimately covered 3500 miles and lasted nearly three years, taking them through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Serbia before, at long last, they received permission to proceed to their final destination, Germany, where they would again apply for asylum.  Along the way, they must deal with unscrupulous smugglers who steal their money and threaten the children while learning to accommodate themselves to conditions in refugee camps. Along with other immigrants, they come under assault from a gang of Bulgarian thugs and sometimes try to elude the authorities and reach borders illegally. And even at the close, when their goal has been reached, their status remains unclear. Over the course of the journey, we get to know Fatima and Nargis especially well: the former comes across as practical and a touch cynical, the latter as a high-spirited young girl who enthuses, for example, over her first sight of the ocean at Istanbul but is terrified, as any child would be, whenever danger approaches. Curiously, the figure who is least well defined is Hassan, who is almost always the person behind the camera and, in voiceover, does not seem an introspective sort. The camerawork is frequently jittery, especially in action sequences, and the coverage necessarily fragmentary, but Emelie Mahdavian has fashioned the footage shot by Fazili over the years into a haunting, compelling if sometimes elliptical narrative that humanizes a crisis usually depicted in broader strokes. Recommended. Aud: P J H C. (F. Swietek)