Here in the comfy chair that is the United States, we tend to look at the international refugee crisis from the outside: statistics, headlines, sad tweets, tragic photos. All things easy to imagine happening to them. “Midnight Traveler” is the refugee crisis as it happens to us.
Hassan Fazili and his wife, Fatima Hossaini, both documentary filmmakers in Afghanistan, fled their country with their two young daughters after the Taliban issued a call for Fazili’s death in March 2015. The next two years were a stop-and-go journey of statelessness as the family struggled to reach a safe harbor in Western Europe. Using three mobile phones, the Fazilis chronicled their trek; Hassan is credited as director and all four as camera operators. You’ve heard of home movies? This may be the first homeless movie.
“Midnight Traveler” opens with the Fazilis in Tajikistan, where their applications to other countries for asylum are being ignored or refused. (The stack of forms for Australia is as big as a phone book.) Reluctantly, they return to Afghanistan, where they plan a 3,500-mile odyssey on a world map to Germany. “Wherever we can go, that’s where we’re going,“ Fatima says.
But what does “going” even mean when bureaucracies, corruption, inertia, and fear dog your every step? After traveling to Qom, Iran, by car and crossing the mountainous Turkish border on foot, the Fazilis wind up in Istanbul, stalled in a hotel for refugees all hoping to get to Greece. Ultimately they sneak under a fence to Bulgaria and land in a Sofia refugee camp where food is scarce. There they stay for several months as local Bulgarians offer both assistance and attacks. One-hundred eighty-nine days after leaving Tajikistan, they’ve made it to a camp in Serbia — where they’re stuck for a year and a half. And so on.
What makes “Midnight Traveler” particularly worth attending to is its intimacy — the way we see the toll of the ordeal seep into the family’s closeness, like grit in a machine. The filmmaking is casual, rough-edged, and frank, with grinding anxiety sparking arguments between Hassan and his wife. Fatima is a naturally upbeat personality, with a smile that keeps breaking through the rain clouds of worry, but we wonder how long she can hold it together when the family is stuck for four nights in a frozen field outside Dimitrovgrad, Bulgaria.
It’s the daughters who snag your emotions, so open-hearted and tough are they at the outset and so weary yet enduring by the end. Nargis is 8 when the movie begins, a chatty, bespectacled presence who gets her exuberance from her mother. Younger sister Zahra is silent and mischievous, still a very young kid. Both treat the journey as a grand adventure at first; both are markedly older and wiser by the end, marked in ways we don’t see and they don’t yet understand.
The film ends on a hesitant positive note, which I won’t spoil, and it has grace notes throughout: a Christmas snowball fight, Fatima learning to ride a bicycle in the Serbian camp, Nargis dancing with abandon to Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us.” These exist alongside the boils and bedbugs, the fleeing in the dark, the days and weeks and months of waiting that unmoor a person’s sense of time and strand them in a Kafkaesque eternity.
And the filming itself: Is it an act of witness or a way to keep disaster at arm’s length? Hassan admits as much in voice-over, when Zahra briefly goes missing and he can’t stop himself from thinking that his worst fear might be good for the movie. “I love cinema,” he says, “but sometimes cinema is so dirty.” True enough, yet “Midnight Traveler” unfolds in many kinds of limbo, and the one between living a disaster and recording it for the world to see is the least problematic. Like its makers — all four of them — the movie is flawed, human, hopeful, and desperate for a place to land.
Directed by Hassan Fazili. Starring Hassan Fazili, Fatima Hossaini, Nargis Fazili, Zahra Fazili. At Kendall Square. In Persian and English, with subtitles. 88 minutes. Unrated (as PG: stress, peril)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.