A Hot Docs 2019 Film Review
Amidst cold nights in abandoned buildings, far and arduous treks through shrubs and forest, threats from both cops and smugglers, and an endless sense of shaky ground beneath their feet, a family captures their lightest, realest and most distinctly ordinary moments. This is the experience of Midnight Traveler.
Their story is remarkable. Afghan filmmakers Hassan Fazili and Fatima Hussaini come from Kabul, where they owned and operated a liberal art cafe. When the subject of one of Fazili’s films, a Taliban commander is killed, Fazili is informed by a Taliban insider that he is being hunted, and it is no longer safe in Afghanistan for him and his family. Fazili, his wife and two daughters set off to Tajikistan to seek asylum. There begins a long and treacherous journey, spanning 3 years and 6 countries, toward what the family hopes will be their new home.
The urgency of their circumstances and the high stakes of their quest are alone enough to keep the audience engaged. But some of the most memorable moments of Midnight Traveler are the quiet, lighthearted, intimate exchanges between the family members that are remarkably ordinary. Hassan teaching Fatima to ride a bike, the children throwing snowballs at their father. The film highlights these pockets of joy and celebration that are born under the overwhelming weight of their statelessness.
The film is able to unveil each individual, and the family dynamic as a whole, in a way that feels effortless. Perhaps this is an effect of the way the film was shot: on 3 different smartphones, by the family themselves. Hassan and Fatima’s relationship was a refreshing surprise to Toronto audiences. Curious laughter and commentary fills the theatre when Fatima playfully explains to Hassan that he cannot compliment other women on their appearance. Hassan challenges her mischievously, joking that she will never be a successful filmmaker with that conservative mentality. They giggle through the conversation, shot with Hassan behind the camera, so we only see Fatima’s expressions and reactions. The film has a home-video feel, giving us a sense of familiarity and closeness to the family. It’s glimpses of these intimate moments that make the story feel extraordinarily personal.
Midnight Traveler by Hassan Fazili. Source: Old Chilly Pictures
Certainly, when audiences walked into what they preconceived as a sympathetic story of a refugee family, they did not expect to meet Fatima- an empowered female filmmaker with a complex and integrated sense of traditional and modern. They did not expect to find, at the core of the family, a husband and wife who are friends, business partners and fellow creatives. Perhaps it’s telling that western audiences found their ability to relate to this family surprising. If one thing is evident from the success of Midnight Traveler, it’s that we must continue to tell stories like this. Not only because of the positive social impact of humanizing an international crisis, but because of the equally important benefit of bridging the cultural gap between east and west.