A scene from Hassan Fazili's "Midnight Family"

Sundance ’19 Review: A Family Without a Country Finds a Place in Your Heart in “Midnight Traveler”

“This film was entirely shot on three mobile phones,” a title card for “Midnight Traveler” reads, a simple enough statement that grows in power immeasurably as you see exactly what Hassan Fazili is allowing you to witness. After a death warrant was put out for him in 2015 in response to his previous project “Peace in Afghanistan,” the filmmaker’s family was forced to flee their native home and understanding the power of the camera, he decided to keep his iPhone running, arranging drop-offs of flash cards that he would copy for others and then scrub the original at various points in his travels attempting to secure political asylum for himself, his wife Fatima Husseini and their two young daughters Zahra and Nargis. (The footage would be then streamed back to him on his phone via the film’s fearless producer/editor Emelie Mahdavian, edited for his approval.)

It’s worth mentioning the film’s origins so your awe at how it was captured doesn’t get in the way what Fazili actually captures as his family trudges from one refugee camp to another, making their way from Tajikistan to Belgrade, stopping to apply for sanctuary status in various countries but never allowed to settle. Imagining this as an adventure for the sake of his children, Fazili and Husseini are clearly more stressed, though their commitment to not letting their anxieties spill out in front of Zahra and Nagis pays off in the short term, with the constant change of locations offering some excitement at first. However, as the days blur into months, the surprise of what the next day will hold is no longer seen as exciting for anyone and Fazili and Husseini have to grapple with unhappy children in addition to a litany of other issues ranging from the value of local currency plummeting as a result of instability making it difficult to travel, even without untrustworthy smugglers eager to prey on their desperation, to conflicts just outside refugee camps where they are unwanted by the locals in any given region.

Fazili handles these challenges with grace both in front of the lens and behind it, largely — and remarkably — keeping his frustrations in check and working within a straight-forward chronological structure that nonetheless allows his mind to wander towards the circumstances that consigned him to such a horrible state of limbo. He’ll recall a falling out with a friend he met at a wedding who became disillusioned with the Afghan government and joined the Taliban, or describe his upbringing in an ultra-religious household where he was the only one of six brothers who didn’t become a mullah (and still asked to be one at one refugee camp, despite not ever praying himself) – conveying a dual perspective of the religious pressures that have shaped his life from the inside and out that would be unique even without documenting his current predicament.

Although he’s rarely physically in front of the camera, Fazili’s musings when paired with the staggering imagery he collects of the family’s treacherous journey gives human dimension to a migrant crisis so often only seen from a macro perspective, but then again that’s why it feels like such a monumental undertaking. Notably, Husseini and Zahra take turns behind the camera as well, making the film as tough as it is at times to experience to transform into an endearing family project that perhaps gives something for them to think about beyond their immediate circumstances. In providing a such an important look into their hardship, it’s an urgent, arresting reminder for those who have a place to call home to start thinking beyond theirs.

“Midnight Traveler” opens on September 18th in New York at Film Forum and October 4th in Los Angeles at the Nuart. A full list of theaters and dates is here.