Berlinale 2019: Hassan Faziliʹs "Midnight Traveler"

That our voices wonʹt be silenced

Threatened with death by the Taliban, director Hassan Fazili fled to Europe with his family, filming their odyssey on his mobile phone. Itʹs not the first time that the refugee trek to Europe has been documented, yet the result is a film that not only serves as a political chronicle of our time, but is also a work of art. By Rene Wildangel

In the eyes of the Taliban, Hassan Fazili had committed a number of serious crimes: he had released the film "Peace in Afghanistan", in which he condemned the belligerence of a former Taliban commander, he made a film about womenʹs rights, and opened a cafe for artists in Kabul.

Following massive threats from Islamists, he was forced to close the cafe and flee Afghanistan with his wife Fatima and daughters Narges and Zahra. Living in exile in Tajikistan, the family attempted to find a country willing to accept them as refugees.

The camera shows Fatima holding their asylum application to Australia, a thick stack of paper with hundreds of pages and endless accounts of persecution, including international reports corroborating their story. However, facing deportation from Tajikistan, the family had no other choice than taking the dangerous return drive by car to Mazar-e-Sharif.

At the border, Fatima reluctantly put on a burka. "I am hot enough as it is and now this too!" Even in the most adverse conditions, the Fazili family never lost its sense of humour.

Still from Hassan Faziliʹs "Midnight Traveler" (source: moviepilot.de)
An entertaining and beautiful film: "with an eye for the many brief moments, details, moods, sunsets, the fleeting glimpses of everyday family life, not to mention the moments of happiness and joy and the charm and wit of his own family, Fazili demonstrates unique filmic talent," writes Wildangel

Back at home, an old friend who had joined the Taliban warned the director that his life was in extreme jeopardy. The family decided to leave the country for good, this time taking the hazardous route to Europe, through countries, some of which they had never heard of before.

The tortuous Balkan route

Hassan and Fatima decided something else as well. They wanted to document their journey. Over the next two years, a video camera was their constant companion. In this case, this actually meant three mobile telephones. Why did they choose this medium? "It was much simpler while travelling," explains the director. "People usually have a mobile phone on them, so it aroused less attention."

Progress was excruciatingly slow and the outcome uncertain. The family made their way across the Iranian-Turkish border to Istanbul. Crossing to Europe by boat, however, was going to cost 4000 euros and, as is generally known, might well have ended in death.

The family opted to take the land route to Bulgaria, always travelling by night and helplessly dependent on deceitful refugee smugglers. After being arrested by the Bulgarian police, they ended up in the Ovcha refugee camp. Things were relatively good for the family there, says Narges, until a man attempted to attack them.

The mood in Bulgaria was ugly and there were frequent physical attacks on refugees and violent protests by nationalists in front of the camp. The police chose to protect the angry demonstrators rather than the refugees.

The situation became intolerable and the family moved on to Serbia. There, they found the camps full and the family had to sleep on an abandoned building site. The falling snowflakes are seen transforming Belgrade into a white winter landscape. The next station on their journey was the Krnjaca refugee camp, where it was possible to register for transit to Hungary.

The wait was long, but they hoped to spare themselves a further illegal border crossing. What followed could be carefree winter images with snowmen, snowball fights and New Yearʹs fireworks. But the wait seemed endless – weeks and months went by and finally a whole year passed. The film records how the daughters have grown. Narges dances to Michael Jacksonʹs "Black and White", while Fatima learns to ride a bicycle.

More than just a mobile phone documentary

Several refugee documentaries filmed with mobile phones have been released already, such as the German WDR documentary Meine Flucht/ My Escape, the six-part migration documentary "The Journey" and the film "Escape from Syria: Raniaʹs Odyssey" produced by the Guardian newspaper. They are all impressive documentaries of contemporary events, but "Midnight Traveler" stands out as a unique piece of cinema.

Not content to merely document the ordeals of refugees during their flight, Hassan Fazili has produced an entertaining and beautiful film. With an eye for the many brief moments, details, moods, sunsets, the fleeting glimpses of everyday family life, not to mention the moments of happiness and joy and the charm and wit of his own family, Fazili demonstrates unique filmic talent.

Is this then the refugee escape as an adventurous family outing? Eldest daughter Narges is so vivacious and curious on the journey that one might be forgiven for thinking she is enjoying herself. Yet, despite the many challenges they face, there is only one thing that Narges finds truly upsetting. "I am bored," she bursts out suddenly – as if this were the worst ordeal she could face.

Every aspect of the journey is filmed; every step of the way becomes a cinematic experience. Perhaps that is what made the undertaking a bit more bearable. In any case, there is no private sphere for the family. This is nothing new for Hassan Fazili. Back in Afghanistan, his wife Fatima and his daughter Narges featured in his short movie "Mr. Faziliʹs wife". This time, the whole family served as the camera team, and when Hassan or Fatima, who is also a filmmaker, werenʹt filming, then one of their daughters was bound to have the phone in her hand.

This is how they amassed the hundreds of hours of film footage, through which Hassan Fazili and his production team had to sift. The selection and raw cut of the film took place while the family was still on the road. At all stages along the way, the producers in New York organised the collection of finished film material on the ground and provided the director with Internet links to new versions of the edited material.

As a result, the film emerged gradually, with Fazili and his team assembling the final version together during an intensive period of post-production in Germany. They engaged in some laborious digital finessing to improve the technically limited quality offered by the mobile phone footage – enabling Faziliʹs magically beautiful images to shine just as equally on the big screen.

Ultimately the family received some comforting news – they were placed at the top of the list allowing them to travel from the Roszke transit camp to Hungary. What followed were another three frustrating months of waiting and uncertainty, during which they were not permitted to leave. Finally they reached their destination – Germany.

This is where the film ends, but the story continues. Their application for refugee status was rejected, a decision they are currently appealing. Can a film director persecuted by the Taliban, whose struggle is documented in a prize-winning film ("Midnight Traveler" received the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for No Borders at the Sundance Festival), be turned away? It is hard to believe.

Fazili, however, is taking it all in his stride. "These days we have a better lawyer." After all, he needs his energy for other things. The director is already coming up with ideas for new film projects.

Rene Wildangel

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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