MIDNIGHT TRAVELER, documentary, not rated, 90 minutes, in Persian and English with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
“Wherever we can go, that’s where we’re going,” Fatima Hussaini says in Midnight Traveler, an up-close-and-personal documentary about statelessness and survival.
An Afghan filmmaker, mother, and wife, Hussaini adopted yet another identity in 2015: political refugee. That year, the Taliban called for the death of her husband, Hassan Fazili, a filmmaker who owned a Kabul café that served both men and women. Together with their two young daughters, the couple fled Afghanistan, beginning an arduous multiyear odyssey that took them across continents and scarily inhospitable countries.
As expected, Hussaini and Fazili were not able to take many belongings with them, but they had their cell phones, which they used to shoot this movie. (Midnight Traveler was directed by Fazili and written by Emelie Mahdavian, one of the producers.) They recorded a journey that starts in Tajikistan — just as they’re being deported after numerous asylum appeals have been rejected — and then takes them back to Afghanistan and circuitously to sites across Europe.
The journey takes so long that you can roughly gauge the passing of time by the children’s physical growth. At some point, the couple’s daughters, Nargis and Zahra, also begin shooting material. They assume new roles as chroniclers of their own ordeal, at times providing some of the movie’s most charming and poignant sights and sounds.
In 2018, the United Nations estimated that a staggering 70.8 million people have been forced from their homes; nearly 26 million are refugees — like the family here — and more than half are younger than 18 years old. The crisis has been well recorded in media accounts and in documentaries as dissimilar as Human Flow and Fire at Sea.
What largely distinguishes Midnight Traveler is its anxious intimacy, an uneasy closeness that pulls you into a small family circle, creating a sense of appropriate claustrophobia. Effectively stateless by the time the movie begins, the family is a tiny unmoored ship searching for harbor.
To a degree, Midnight Traveler is a diary movie, complete with time and place notations: “Day 51, Ovcha Kupel Refugee Camp, Bulgaria.” The filmmakers are chronicling their own lives, of course. But they are also documenting a far larger catastrophe, one that comes in different languages and affects innumerable families. It’s easy to feel outraged by what you see and hear. But at its best, this documentary asks something more of you. When a nationalist protest breaks out near one refugee camp, you are bluntly reminded that behind the accounts of the migration crisis are concrete, real-world choices that those of us with homes make each day about the lives of others. — Manohla Dargis/The New York Times