‘Midnight Traveler’ Review: A Refugee Family’s Search for Safe Harbor
“Wherever we can go, that’s where we’re going,” Fatima Hussaini says in “Midnight Traveler,” an up close and personal documentary about statelessness and survival.
An Afghan filmmaker, mother and wife, Hussaini adopted yet another identity in 2015: political refugee. That year the Taliban called for the death of her husband, Hassan Fazili, a filmmaker who owned a cafe in Kabul that served both men and women. Together with their two young daughters, the couple fled Afghanistan, beginning an arduous, multiyear odyssey that took them across continents and some scarily inhospitable countries.
As expected, Hussaini and Fazili were not able to take many belongings with them, but they had their cellphones, which they used to shoot this movie. (“Midnight Traveler” was directed by Fazili and written by Emelie Mahdavian, one of the producers.) They recorded a journey that starts in Tajikistan — just as they’re being deported after numerous asylum appeals have been rejected — and then takes them back to Afghanistan and circuitously to sites across Europe. (It’s not clear why their requests were denied.)
The journey takes so long that you can roughly gauge the passing of time by the children’s physical growth. At some point, the couple’s daughters, Nargis and Zahra, also begin shooting material. Like their mother, they assume new roles as chroniclers of their own ordeal, at times providing some of the movie’s most charming, poignant sights and sounds.
In 2018, the United Nations estimated that a staggering 70.8 million people have been forced from their homes; nearly 26 million are refugees — like the family here — and more than half younger than 18 years old. The crisis has been well recorded in media accounts and in documentaries as dissimilar as “Human Flow” and “Fire at Sea.” Whatever the good intentions behind this material — and the outrage and tears of empathetic readers and viewers — it is hard to gauge how all this documentation helps those most affected. Given how many people continue to flee their countries it can seem that the most important audiences for this work are future historians.
What largely distinguishes “Midnight Traveler” is its anxious intimacy, a sense of uneasy closeness that pulls you into a family circle that at times gets very small, creating a sense of appropriate claustrophobia. Effectively stateless by the time the movie begins, the family is a tiny unmoored ship searching for harbor. You are a witness to the manifold difficulties of its odyssey — the complicated logistics, the thrum of menace and the tedious waiting, captured in very rough visuals — though, oftentimes, you wish that the filmmakers included more about the actual nuts-and-bolts arrangements. You are also present during moments of domestic tension, including sharp words, marital squabbles and weeping.
To a degree, “Midnight Traveler” is a diary movie, complete with regular time and place notations: “Day 51 Ovcha Kupel Refugee Camp, Bulgaria.” The filmmakers are chronicling their own lives, of course. But they are also documenting a far larger catastrophe, one that comes in different languages and affects innumerable families. It’s easy to feel upset and recurrently outraged by what you see and hear. But at its best, this documentary asks something more of you. When a nationalist protest breaks out near one refugee camp, you are bluntly reminded that behind the accounts of the migration crisis are concrete, real-world choices that those of us with homes make each day about the lives of others.
Not rated. In Persian and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
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Manohla Dargis has been the co-chief film critic since 2004. She started writing about movies professionally in 1987 while earning her M.A. in cinema studies at New York University, and her work has been anthologized in several books. @ManohlaDargis • Facebook
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