Midnight Traveler – Hot Docs 2019 Review

Hassan Fazali’s quietly affecting Midnight Traveler bookends itself with a shot of barbed wire against a glowing sunset. It serves as a potent metaphor for the way in which the Fazilis, a family of Afghan refugees evading the Taliban, recognize universal beauty even as they find themselves trapped. Moments of bliss, like a tornado of leaves or an unexpected snowfall, are naturally accompanied by terrifying attacks from Bulgarian nationalists. Life for those on the run can somehow be joyful, which is comforting… up to a point.

Spanning a timeline of around 3 years, condensed to a brisk 87 minutes, the film never feels rushed or lacking in context, even managing to sneak in archive footage from the Fazilis’ relatively more relaxed past. In the span of an hour and a half, Hassan and editor Emilie Mahdavian craft an instructive guide to the journey and struggles that most refugees face on their way from the Middle East to Europe. Bribing smugglers, using Google maps to locate safehouses, pilfering a few plums from a neighbouring orchard. But what makes the film so arresting is its focus on the family drama (and comedy) that arises at every step. A playful fight between Hassan and Fatima is notable for the way it addresses cultural standards and reveals the dynamics of their relationship. The film says a lot without saying very much at all.

Hassan is credited as director, but this fact is fudged slightly by its creation. The film is shot on 3 smartphones, camera duties rotating between Hassan, his wife Fatima, and even his precocious older daughter Nargis, who provides some of the more profound on and off screen elements of the film. The democratization of filmmaking has been heavily debated, especially as it comes to the issue of smartphone cinematography. Yet besides its necessity to the final product (it’d hardly be wise to carry a heavily outfitted camera when fleeing police), the footage finds itself taking a “home video” to its ironic limits. Multiple press outlets have even gone so far as to label Midnight Traveler a “vlog”, but I think it’s more accurately the evolution of verité cinema. The film is no less cinematic or visually dynamic than it would be with a monopod or variant lenses. Cinema can be retrofitted to the era it lives in, and this era calls for the immediacy of what you can grab on the fly. It’s also given some production value in the form of a magnificently subtle, yet dense electronic score/sound design from Gretchen Jude and Daniel Timmons, elevating each scene’s emotional state with very little other than a chorus of distorted female voices or rippling strings.

One of the more fascinating elements of the film is how it interrogates the ethics of its existence. A late scene finds Hassan and Mahdavian beginning to assemble a potentially horrific climax before cutting to black, as a self-aware Fazili laments “cinema is dirty”. Stories of refugees have often relied on viewers seeing the full extent of death and decay, which can border on the exploitative. Yet Hassan and co distinguish themselves from the pack by acknowledging the medium’s tendency to render its subjects as playthings, and refusing to do anything of the sort.

It’s easy to fall prey to cynicism when viewing any current document of refugee life, and this film offers no sugarcoating of its subjects’ tragic dilemma. But life is always situated on a spectrum, and Midnight Traveler looks at the dirt road ahead, bumps, ditches and all, and it decides it’s worth traversing after all.

✮✮✮✮½

Midnight Traveler screens as part of Hot Docs International Film Festival’s World Showcase program, on the following dates:

Monday Apr 29 – 2:30PM – Scotiabank Theatre 3

Sunday May 5 – 12:30PM – Aga Khan Museum

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