Refugees rarely get to tell their own stories, which means their stories get told for them — often inaccurately and with undue hostility. Lack of resources is one issue, but a lack of stability is another: Asylum-seekers are in a frightening state of limbo, fleeing the imminent dangers of their native countries only to suffer the indifference or suspicion of potential adoptive homes. Filmmaker Hassan Fazili and his family logged three perilous years and hundreds of miles in exile from Afghanistan, where the Taliban had put out a call for his death. Shot on three mobile phones, Fazili’s “Midnight Traveler” is a documentary that feels like a modern-day message in a bottle, an urgent appeal for help from a family that’s still searching for a home. After lapping ashore at the Sundance Film Festival and other spring festivals, it should find an empathetic reception in the West.
Speaking via Skype at the True/False Film Festival in early March, Fazili told the audience that his family’s asylum application had yet to be processed, due in part to poor legal representation. In that sense, “Midnight Traveler” never loses the shroud of uncertainty that haunts it from the beginning, when Fazili and his family — wife Fatima Hussaini and their two young daughters, Nargis and Zahra — are forced to pull up stakes in Tajikistan after their request for asylum is denied and they’re deported back to Afghanistan. Their statelessness and homelessness is heartbreaking enough, but what cuts deepest is the perception of invisibility that seems to greet them at every turn, as if their fundamental personhood is being denied. They feel like a problem that no government, and few private citizens, are willing to even acknowledge, much less address.
Before the Taliban took notice of them, Fazili and Hussaini were partners in operating Kabul’s Art Cafe and Restaurant, a place where reform-minded men and women could congregate in defiance of the Taliban’s religious police, which pressed for segregation of the sexes. After a conservative mullah called for a boycott, protesters and authorities rallied against the cafe and shut it down. In March 2015, the Taliban put out a call for Fazili’s death, prompting him and his family to move to Tajikistan, but as “Midnight Traveler” opens, they’ve been deported from their temporary home after 14 months. Through a network of friends, they join a wave of refugees fleeing Afghanistan for the Turkish border — first by car, then by foot, with Hussaini wearing a burka that functions both as adherence to religious code and a way to travel incognito.
While keeping their smartphones charged is a challenge, especially when they’re trekking through the forest, Fazili offers vivid pieces of his family’s “journey to the edge of Hell,” which takes them through Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia en route to their intended destination in the European Union. The conditions that greet them are often astonishingly harsh, whether they’re camping out on rain-sodden ground, squeezing bare mattresses into the hallways of urban refugee facilities, or simply finding corners of abandoned buildings that are unoccupied. Still worse are other threats, like a violent mob that terrorizes migrants on the streets of Bulgaria.
Because Fazili’s status is in constant flux, away from any resources more sophisticated than a phone, his footage has been carefully assembled by Emelie Mahdavian, a filmmaker and scholar whose interest in Central Asian cinema brought her into contact with him. Mahdavian covers each step in the family’s fractured journey while honoring Fazili’s instinct to pick up on the lighter moments along the way, when his girls are growing and playing and making the best of difficult circumstances. “Midnight Traveler” has a home-movie quality that’s enormously effective in putting a human face on a global crisis. There are many thousands of families out there just like Fazili’s, seeking shelter from a never-ending storm. The film makes them visible.