It looks so easy on a map. Just a few inches, or centimeters, get you from here to there. Even if you wholly comprehend the miles — or kilometers — they translate to, modern Western life has conditioned us to regard journeys as simple “trips,” not ordeals.
But when you’re trekking from Tajikistan to Afghanistan, through Iran into Turkey, Bulgaria and you hope, into Europe, when you’re a refugee fleeing for your life, nothing about it is simple.
Hassan Fazili is an Afghan documentary filmmaker who, in 2015, ran afoul of the Taliban. No, they aren’t the government any more. But the fanatical Islamo-fascists still have the run of much of the country. When they say you’re going to come to some harm, you take it seriously.
He, his filmmaking wife Fatima Hossaini and their two little kids fled to Tajikistan. And when time ran out there, resolved to cover 3500 miles to safety in Germany or some other haven.
“Midnight Traveler” is the movie he made while on this arduous, years-long journey. With only a little cash, what little they could stuff into their car and their cell phones, they fled — using their cells as maps to plan their passages, communication with friends and potential smugglers who could help them, musical entertainment for the kids and as a film production they could stash in a purse or pocket.
Fazili — I’m assuming Hossain did some shooting, too, and we see the oldest daughter Nargis get some images — captures the ardous car ride, videoing through a cracked windshield or a lens fogged up by early morning condensation when they camped out.
We’re shown daytime treks in groups of refugees led by smugglers across easier borders, and the midnight scampers involved when crossing more dangerous ones.
Nargis reads narration to set the stage, “The road of life winds through Hell,” and we can believe it.
Our global refugee crisis, happening in an increasingly dystopian world hostile to the displaced, is personalized in “Midnight Traveler.”
Fatima rages at the smuggler who gets them into Bulgariia and threatens to kidnap their children if they don’t pay up. “These men are vultures!” she complains (in Pashto, with English subtitles). “How do you say ‘help’ in English?”
In some countries, they want the police to find them. A reasonably comfortable refugee camp, freedom of movement and getting your name on an official “list” to cross the next border is what awaits them.
In others, the cops are sympathetic to the right wing protesters who hurl rocks, chase them, march and chant (in Bulgarian), “DEPORT! No day in COURT!”
Aid workers pop up here and there, a TV crew shows up to battle the language barrier to report their plight, friends help here, officials turn them away there.
And as on any family road trip, there are (understandable, here) child meltdowns, miserable stretches and flashbacks.
Fazili remembers (in voice over) the former friend who joined the Taliban, and who called to warn him when a film he made about a Taliban commander irked the commander’s leaders. He was going to be arrested.
As he remembers this, and at other points, he talks of the film he sees in his head, adding “cut” to segments of voice-over, detailing a horrific moment’s potential as “the best part” of his finished movie, imagining a final family triumph that will underscore the closing credits.
Yes, documentary filmmakers are like that, making a “story” out of the reality they or the people or animals the film is about are dealing with.
Much of what was harrowing about their odyssey happens off-camera — the smuggler threats, a rock throwing incident, etc. At other times, Hossaini and others tell her husband to “turn it off.”
And just when you think, “Even in Bulgaria they don’t separate families and treat refugees humanely,” along comes a border crossing into Hungary where the refugee “transit station” is a razor-wired prison camp, which young Nargis takes a phone out to record in “the yard” because “I want to REMEMBER this.”
“Midnight Traveler” is a documentary whose “How we made this film under these conditions” story almost overwhelms the finished product. Too much happens off camera, too many scenes capture the drudgery of the camps, where they were trapped for months and months at a time.
But Fazili has made an otherwise-unblinking cell-phone verite film of the crisis of our times, a first-person account of what people who cannot live where they are do to save themselves. Nobody watching “Midnight Traveler” can come away from it unimpressed, even if some are determined to look on this crisis and remain unmoved.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, some violence
Cast: Fatima Hossaini, Hassan Fazili, Nargis Fazili, Zahra Fazili
Credits: Directed by Hassan Fazili, script by Emelie Coleman Mahdavian. An Oscilloscope Labs release.
Running time: 1:27