The documentary "Midnight Traveler" is the extraordinary first-person account of filmmaker Hassan Fazili's escape from Afghanistan with his family, and their two-year journey to seek asylum in Europe after the Taliban threatened his life.
But what's even more remarkable is the way the movie was made: It was shot entirely on three cellphones by Fazili, his wife, Fatima, and their two young daughters, Nargis and Zahra, who filmed themselves at every step of the way.
Fazili had been a filmmaker, and his wife a TV actress, in their previous life in Afghanistan; he also co-owned Kabul's socially liberal Art Cafe. But after police attacked the cafe and the Taliban put a price on Fazili's head in retaliation for a documentary he made about a commander who left the militant group, the family fled. Following 14 months in Tajikistan, during which they attempted to apply for asylum, they were deported back to Afghanistan. Finally, they made the difficult decision to try to reach Europe illegally.
"This is a story of a journey to the edge of hell," says Nargis, who cannot be more than 9 or 10, in a voice-over in her native Dari (an Afghan variant of Persian) in the film's early moments.
In intimate and at times gripping footage, the film chronicles the Fazilis' 3,500-mile journey across half a dozen countries, including Iran, Turkey and the Balkan Peninsula. With the aid of smugglers, they cross multiple borders on foot, trudging through fields and forests, crawling through wire fences, sleeping on roadsides and in safe houses crowded with other migrants. They endure anti-immigrant racism and spend over a year in refugee camps in Bulgaria and Serbia, plus another three months in a Hungarian border prison.
The film captures not only the harrowing moments of their ordeal but also the sheer tedium of the seemingly endless waiting and uncertainty that come with being refugees. Occasionally, on-screen titles ("Day 271: Krnjaca Camp, Serbia") mark the passage of time. Even by the end, although the Fazilis are safely in Europe, their legal status remains unresolved: asylum claims can take years.
Notwithstanding its dark moments, "Midnight Traveler" (which takes its name from a work by 20th-century Afghan writer Sayd Bahodine Majrouh) is incredibly hopeful. What the Fazilis seek is universal: a life free of danger, a better future. Their courage and equanimity in the face of hardship are genuinely inspiring.
The family members are also quite likable: their good-natured banter and sense of humor arouse immediate empathy. Nargis cries and complains of boredom but also cheerfully dances to music videos; Hassan and Fatima squabble, but then laugh at themselves. In one particularly tender scene, everyone plays in the falling snow in the yard of the refugee camp.
Despite its numerous technical constraints, the film is aesthetically well done. While much of the footage is necessarily rough and poorly lit, Fazili's talent as a filmmaker comes through in more cinematic takes - swirling leaves, birds in flight, architectural patterns - and benefits from careful editing by Emelie Mahdavian, who also wrote and co-produced. Composer Gretchen Jude's meditative score, incorporating the lutelike Afghan rubab, also heightens the mood.
In showing such a personal, unmeditated view of the global migration crisis through one family's story, "Midnight Traveler" is a timely, essential film. That it premiered at Sundance - and will, with luck, help the Fazilis win their asylum case, thus allowing the director to keep making movies - makes it even more uplifting.