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Review: ‘Midnight Traveler’ uses cellphone cameras to make the refugee crisis personal and real

Hassan Fazili, bottom left, and his wife, filmmaker Fatima Hussaini, top left, with their daughters, Nargis, top right, and Zahra in a scene from the documentary “Midnight Traveler.”
Hassan Fazili, bottom left, and his wife, filmmaker Fatima Hussaini, top left, with their daughters, Nargis, top right, and Zahra in a scene from the documentary “Midnight Traveler.”
(Oscilloscope Laboratories)

There’s as much truth as poetry in the title of the unexpectedly intimate and involving documentary “Midnight Traveler.”

Yes, there’s a bit of a blues lyric about those words, but they’re also terrifyingly literal: Time and again, the subjects of this compelling first-person film end up fleeing for their lives in the middle of the night.

Winner of a special jury prize at Sundance, “Midnight Traveler” was shot entirely on three cellphones as a family of four goes involuntarily on the run before our quite astonished eyes for what ends up feeling like forever.

In addition to being in charge here, Hassan Fazili, the family’s father, is an accomplished Afghan film and theater director. But in 2015, after he opened a popular secular meeting place called Art Café, the Taliban called for his death and he fled to neighboring Tajikistan.

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Going with him were his wife, Fatima Hussaini, also a filmmaker, and their two engaging, live-wire daughters, Nargis and Zahra. It turned out to be only the first step of a very long journey.

Making films on cellphones is hardly new territory, but a combination of factors make this one vividly stand out.

For one thing, Fazili has very real filmmaking skills, both in terms of framing the specific events he records and finding random moments of unexpected but real beauty that reflect the immediacy of the family’s situation.

Also, because nothing about their journey was known when they began — how long it would last, what the dangers would be, where they would end up — that makes this story of uncertainty and stealth one especially suited to a catch-as-catch-can medium like the cellphone.

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Finally, Fazili ended up with exceptional collaborators, including composer Gretchen Jude and especially editor Emelie Mahdavian, a job that is essential when you are boiling down 300 hours of footage and 25 hours of voice-over into a 90-minute film.

With great difficulty, Fazili was able to have the data on his phone’s memory cards periodically shipped to the U.S.-based Mahdavian, freeing him to wipe the cards and start shooting again.

All of this would have been of limited interest had Fazili and his team not accomplished what they have: created a story that captures with casual but dazzling immediacy what it feels like on the most human level to be a refugee. This is a story that could not have been made had it not been lived first, and that makes all the difference.

Fazili and his family are introduced as they are leaving Tajikistan after a year of fruitless international appeals for refugee status.

The words “Day One” appear on the screen and Hussaini admits, “Wherever we can go, that’s where we’ll go,” a sentiment that is more prescient than she knows.

It would detract from “Midnight Traveler’s” considerable impact to be too precise about all the places the family touched down and how much time their journey took, but some specifics are necessary to give a sense of the tone of the film.

An early moment of unexpected wonder takes place when, during a stopover in Turkey, young Nargis delightedly exclaims, “It’s like the water is angry” as she steps into the Bosphorus strait and discovers the nature of tides.

Much of the family’s experience, however, is less salutary as smugglers lie to and threaten them and, in Bulgaria, they witness the depredations of anti-immigrant gangs.

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Though youngsters Nargis and Zahra are surprisingly resilient in the face of all this, the adults are not always so. As deprivations shorten tempers, disputes occur, including a memorable one in which Fazili is chastised for complimenting another woman.

It is the gift of “Midnight Traveler” to allow us to feel this family’s fate in the pit of our stomachs. If the plight of refugees has ever seemed abstract, this film makes sure you know how real it is.

'Midnight Traveler'
Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles



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