Midnight Traveler review – refugees' gripping escape from Afghanistan

Filmed entirely on smartphones, Hassan Fazili’s powerful documentary charts his family’s perilous, gruelling trek to sanctuary in Europe

At the end of last year, I was complaining that some documentaries are starting to feel meagre and negligible. Well, here’s something to prove me wrong. Life during wartime is the theme of this gripping cine-journal from Afghan film-maker Hassan Fazili. Midnight Traveler is his personal film about the gruelling odyssey undertaken by his family as they fled Afghanistan in 2015, making the brutal overland trek through Tajikistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary on a mission to seek refuge in the European Union. On the way, they face threats of rape and violence, theft and finally abandonment from their unscrupulous smugglers – and racist attacks in Bulgaria. (Hungary, incidentally, is where their unfinished journey ends, and Fazili leaves it up to the audience to ponder just what kind of a reception refugees can expect in that country.)

He avowedly shot this whole feature on smartphones – keeping them charged must have been one of his lesser nightmares – and the US-based film-maker and Persian speaker Emelie Mahdahvian edited, produced and arguably co-created this documentary. The result is an unexpectedly great-looking film, virtually a demo reel for all indie film-makers, certainly considering it was just shot on phones, even bearing in mind the post-production work.

The act of filming must have been Fazili’s way of managing the ordeal and keeping sane, especially in the long periods of inactivity in the refugee camp. (They were in the Serbian one for a brain-pulverising 475 days.) In its way, it’s a home movie that, like so many others, makes the dad behind the camera a mostly absent figure, privileging images of the wife and children. But his presence breaks through as his wife, Nargis, talks about the religious faith he has mostly grown away from – and yells at him for flirting with other women. A powerful, personal piece of work.

• Midnight Traveler is released in the UK on 17 January.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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