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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 March 2019

Midnight Traveller: A brutally honest portrayal of a refugee family's three-year ordeal fleeing Afghanistan

A new film documents one family's bid to flee their homeland and seek refuge in Europe - shot entirely on smartphones

Hassan Fazili, with his daughters Nargis and Zahra, and wife Fatima Hussaini. Courtesy Old Chilly Pictures.
Hassan Fazili, with his daughters Nargis and Zahra, and wife Fatima Hussaini. Courtesy Old Chilly Pictures.

For Hassan Fazili, 2015 would prove to be the year everything would change.

He was tasked with making a film about a Taliban commander who had laid down arms in favour of a peaceful civilian life. “I thought that by making this film, we could do something about bringing peace,” the director says, of his documentary titled Peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban commander in question, Mullah Tur Jan, was murdered shortly after the documentary aired on Afghan television and Fazili had a bounty placed on his head.

It was important that the closeness and intimacy of the family was at the heart of the film

At the time, Fazili was a well-known and popular director, having developed plays, documentaries, short films and several television series in Afghanistan. His short films, Life Again! (2009) and Mr Fazili’s Wife (2011) pushed the envelope on issues surrounding the rights of women, children and those with a disability in Afghanistan, and won awards at numerous international festivals.

But after Peace in Afghanistan, that reputation was called into question. “After the broadcast I saw the ­Taliban were so close-minded that they couldn’t even hear about peace from their own people,” says Fazili.

He and his actress-director wife Fatima Hussaini, and their two daughters, had been living a comfortable life until that point. But with a bounty on Fazili’s head, they knew their homeland was not a safe place for them to be.

“It was really hard for us,” he says. “We were forced to leave. We were in circumstances that we didn’t know what to do. We knew that we had to get out of Afghanistan, but we didn’t know where to go.”

Fazili's daughter Zahra sleeps among their belongings on the Balkan route. Courtesy Old Chilly Pictures
Fazili's daughter Zahra sleeps among their belongings on the Balkan route. Courtesy Old Chilly Pictures

He reached out to American documentary filmmaker Emelie Mahdavian – who, coincidentally, is translating my interview with Fazili at the Berlin Film Festival. Mahdavian and Fazili had met through a mutual friend, and Mahdavian had programmed Mr Fazili’s Wife in the Davis Feminist Film Festival at the University of California. The pair set about writing letters to international governments in the hope that the family would be granted refugee status somewhere. But every country refused to take them in. Instead, they were forced to use smugglers and take the so-called Balkan route to get in to Europe. Being filmmakers, it was natural they would shoot a movie about their experience.

Midnight Traveller was shown at the recent Sundance and Berlin Film festivals and it has a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “We knew at the beginning we would want to make a film about the route we were on,” says Fazili. But they didn’t necessarily want to make a film about the journey itself.

“We wanted to make a film about our family,” he says. “So it was important that the closeness and intimacy of the family was at the heart of the film. I didn’t want it to be a subject-focused film. I wanted it to be about the family [and] the diversity of feelings.”

The logistics of filmmaking when fleeing

The family used three smartphones to shoot the movie. The camera was in the hands of the husband and wife, and also their eldest daughter. However, they continually ran into memory issues when the phone’s SD cards became full, and would have to find a way of sending the footage to a safe place, and wiping their cards clean so they could continue to shoot.

Mahdavian was able to arrange local contacts in each country along the route so the footage could be uploaded and sent to the US, where it was stored. Fazili could then wipe his SD cards and keep shooting new material.

Having always shot with professional cameras, using smartphones was a challenging experience for the director. “At first it was hard, because in the past I was used to professional set-ups where you could adjust the light and have more control over the image,” he says. “We really didn’t know what would happen tomorrow, so we couldn’t plan for the future. So I think in the ­circumstances, shooting with mobile phones was better.”

What they didn’t realise at the start, was that the journey would take three years. They finally arrived in Germany in April last year, after being stuck in camps in Bulgaria and Serbia for days, that became weeks, and then months and years.

We lived with the film for so long, that it was part of our daily lives and the film would tell me when I needed to turn off the camera

The family would shoot footage about their experiences nearly every day. “But sometimes if I felt like nothing was happening, or something wasn’t beautiful, maybe a couple of days would pass where I wouldn’t shoot anything,” Fazili says. “I had this feeling that we lived with the film for so long, that it was part of our daily lives and the film would tell me when I needed to turn off the camera.”

Midnight Traveller condenses all the footage into a sprightly 90 minutes. It races along and sometimes it’s hard to work out just how much time has passed. “There are moments where there is boredom, but I really wanted to show the range of emotions you go through as characters on this journey. So there is happiness, and sadness and boredom.”

Addressing the ethics of making the film

At one stage, the documentary shows the family being ordered to run as fast as possible to make it to the Serbian border and avoid the police. When I ask Fazili about this, he says: “This one is very hard to talk about,” and grabs my knee to show that he’s going to a place he doesn’t like to remember.

“The smuggler said from here to that point there we have to run very fast, if we go slowly the police may see us. So you really have to run. So I had to run quickly with my family and I was carrying things on my back.”

In the film, Fazili begins to question his own integrity; at times he wonders if he is more interested in the film that he is making, than he is with protecting his family and ensuring their safety. This is particularly true when his daughter goes missing, and the director reveals the internal debate over whether he should turn on the camera.

The resulting footage has been widely lauded. The Hollywood Reporter described “Midnight Traveller as, “A valua ble, first-hand refugees’ story,” while The Playlist said: Midnight Traveller is a brutally honest film about the hardship and inhumanity a family endures and their bravery, love, hope, and, above all else, desire to control their own fate.”

And yet, the story is ongoing. The family may have arrived in Germany in April last year, but they are still fighting for the right to remain. “Our case is in the system. In January we changed lawyer and had to re-file the whole case and start from the beginning of the asylum process.”

In the meantime, Fazili is keeping busy by writing other scripts. “I hope you will get to see [these],” he says.

Updated: February 18, 2019 05:15 PM

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