Midnight Traveler: Sheff Doc Fest Review
In this personal and riveting documentary, Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili and his family document life on the run after the Taliban place a bounty on his head. Shot entirely on three smartphones by Fazili, his wife Fatima, and their daughters Nargis and Zahra, the film offers a unique perspective into the lives of refugees desperately seeking asylum.
Midnight Traveler begins shortly after the family has their asylum application denied from Tajikistan and are being deported back to Afghanistan. Clearly aware that this is not a safe place for them to be, the decision is made to travel to the European Union and seek refuge there. This journey takes place over the course of nearly three years, as the family travel thousands of miles across various countries (including Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia) and are met with a great deal of hostility along the way.
While countless documentaries about the refugee experience are being made every day, it is genuinely refreshing to see one from the viewpoint of the people themselves. It’s this element that makes it far more valuable and significant viewing than most other films of its type.
Along the way, we get an eye-opening view of the sheer misery and torment refugees have to deal with. They are met with grief everywhere they go, treated poorly, spoken to like dirt and often forced to sleep in inhumane conditions. At one point, we see the family lying their mattresses in a hallway, and on those special occasions in which they have somewhere to sleep, the refugee camps look and feel more like prisons than anything else.
This is something that will hit home to a great many people, as hatred towards migrants, even those who are running from life-threatening conditions, is sadly all too familiar. The film should also dispel the myth that country’s accept migrants all too easily, as the Fazili family’s search for safe asylum is certainly not simple, and the civilians they meet are anything but hospitable.
One of the film’s most shocking moments takes place in Bulgaria, in which the family, along with several other migrants, are brutally attacked by a mob. The phones don’t manage to capture this, but the aftermath, and particularly the children’s hysterical reactions to the incident, is quite gut-wrenching.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film is its positive outlook. Given the family’s ongoing search for somewhere they can settle, there is a genuine feeling of hope surrounding the events; hope that this will all end and they will soon be able to live like the ordinary family they were not too long ago. Hassan and Fatima often play down the more traumatic experiences so as to relax their daughters, and Nargis in particular has a wonderful zest for life, often pointing out stunning views or cracking jokes. These elements help the film feel surprisingly optimistic in spite of the events it’s depicting.
Perhaps the greatest praise must be given to editor Emelie Mahdavian, who has taken what one can only assume is hundreds of hours of sporadic footage and pieced it together to create a cohesive and fully-formed narrative. She’s also cleverly included the lighter moments the family share along the way, so as to compliment the themes of hope and love conquering all.
Ultimately, that is the feeling that Midnight Traveler leaves you with. We are told that love, family, hope, desire and loyalty are enough for any of us to battle through any hurdles life may throw at us. This works perfectly due to the sheer authenticity on display.
One could argue that the footage is a little jolty and difficult at times, but the manner in which it’s shot is precisely what makes it the vital viewing that it is. The smartphone footage creates a film that feels closer to a home-video, and it’s this perspective we’re offered that creates such a refreshing and powerful picture.
Midnight Traveler is simply an unforgettable experience, that draws attention to refugees around the world as people, as opposed to statistics and news stories. Despite its limitations visually, Hassan Fazili and Emelie Mahdavian’s collaboration has created something truly special, documenting a journey from certain danger filled with a high level of tension and suspense, while presenting positive themes of love, family and hope. It’s a film with a lot to say, but it’s not one that lectures or demonstrates any kind of self-importance. It is unique, authentic and extremely important. It is, quite simply, one of the best refugee documentaries ever made.
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