Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili once ran the Art Cafe in Kabul, a space for local artists to congregate and socialize. Among other works, he directed the documentary Peace in Afghanistan, which profiled onetime Taliban commander Tur Jan, who abandoned the group and forsook violence. Not long after the film aired on Afghan television, the Taliban killed Tur Jan and put out a bounty for Fazili. The Art Cafe had to close.
Hassan, his wife Fatima, and their two young daughters fled for Tajikistan, where they spent more than a year unsuccessfully petitioning various countries for asylum. Facing deportation to Afghanistan, the family began a new, unusual film project: They turned their phone cameras on one another in order to capture their situation. For over two years, they filmed themselves on a journey to Europe, documenting each step of their search for a safe place. The result, Midnight Traveler, just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
At this juncture, a good portion of the visual media we consume in the daily course of our lives was shot on a cellphone. Much of the raw footage that emerges from the ongoing international migrant crisis comes from such sources, and is then disseminated both by social and traditional media. In Midnight Traveler, this mobile aesthetic is processed through migrants who happen to be professionals. Fatima is a filmmaker as well, and their older daughter Nargis is not just as comfortable with a cellphone as any child today but also has acting experience. They instinctively know when and how to pull out their phones, and what makes for a captivating shot. This is a first-person account of statelessness made with an eye for striking scenes — not something that could have been put together by anyone who cribbed material from publicly available news sources.
As the documentary shows, being a migrant turns one’s surroundings into a perpetual series of liminal spaces. Backyards, forest campsites, and remote roads are constant milieus. Even the dormitories of a European refugee camp feel in no way like a refuge. Alienation and uncertainty are built into the tone of the film, and the look of a mobile phone camera accentuates this feeling.
When Fazili’s short film Mr. Fazili’s Wife played at the Censored Women’s Film Festival in Berlin in 2016, he was, ironically, unable to travel from Serbia to attend because of his status as a refugee. Even as his new film plays at major festivals, his family’s future is uncertain. The EU accepted them as refugees (which was only possible because they illegally crossed borders to make their case heard), but they still do not yet have a permanent home. In the current age, art and information cross national boundaries more easily than human beings. While disquieting, that at least allows people like this to make their stories heard far and wide.
Midnight Traveler is currently playing at the Sundance Film Festival (Park City, Utah). It will play at the Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) in February.