I’ve never understood the lack of empathy and dehumanizing torrent of media and political ire directed towards refugees and other migrants. It doesn’t take much to imagine how desperate someone would have to be to sell their possessions and hand over all their savings to a people smuggler, putting their life, and the lives of their family in the dubious hands of a professional trafficker.

In case we’re struggling, Midnight Traveler, a film directed by the Afghanistani filmmaker Hassan Fazili, documents Fazili’s family’s attempt to escape Afghanistan after he is tipped off that the Taliban plan to kill him. The family’s aim is to reach safety in Western Europe.

Shot entirely on three mobile phones over a period of about three years, we follow the ups and downs of Fazili’s family. They leave Tajikistan, where they’ve stayed for over a year in an effort to apply for refugee status in various locations, after making the desperate decision to make their way to Turkey and take the perilous refugee route that was well-documented in the European media in 2015-16. From Iran they plan to reach Turkey, then cross to Greece, passing through Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, in the hope of finally making it safely to Germany, which famously announced a (domestically controversial) policy of extending an unequivocal welcome to refugees.

Often the events of the film are pictured against an evocative soundscape: sometimes discordant, sometimes beautiful and mournful. Although, like the excellent Syrian documentary For Sama, this is an account of real events, Midnight Traveler is also a work of art – a testament to Fazili’s talents, and his refusal to let that side of his identity be subsumed into the family’s ordeal.

Amid the harrowing events, there are moments of joy, connection and fun – playing in the snow in Serbia, the older daughter’s exultation at the tidal waters in Turkey – which really shine forth from this film. And although filmed on mobile phones in difficult conditions, the finished film does not feel scrappy or incoherent. Emelie Mahdavian, a US-based documentary maker, produced and wrote the film that emerged, and it went through extensive post-production. The film notably won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for No Borders at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Hassan and his mostly cheerful wife Fatima try to remain positive in the most gruelling circumstances, partly for the sake of their two young daughters. Despite nights in the freezing forest and the barest of facilities in the various refugee camps and safe houses in which they end up, the girls and their clothing always look astonishingly clean and well-cared for. But their lives are uncertain, and at best simply on hold. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at times they’re not even ticking off the bottom rung, and the countries they reach on their way to Germany do not exactly welcome them with open arms.

I wonder why people avoid films like this. Is it too much reality? I’m really glad I watched this film. It was beautifully made, fascinating and enlightening, and it should be essential viewing.

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