A Refugee Family Is Behind The Camera In 'Midnight Traveler' Documentary An Afghan filmmaker and his family shot hundreds of hours of cell phone footage after fleeing the Taliban. Producer Emelie Mahdavian said it was important to let their first-person story stand alone.
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A Refugee Family Takes Viewers On A Years-Long Escape In 'Midnight Traveler'

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A Refugee Family Takes Viewers On A Years-Long Escape In 'Midnight Traveler'

A Refugee Family Takes Viewers On A Years-Long Escape In 'Midnight Traveler'

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Finally today, we hear stories about immigration and refugees all the time in the news, but we often don't get to go deeper to understand why people become refugees, why they leave everything they know to embark on dangerous journeys, especially with kids involved. Two filmmakers, Hassan Fazili and Fatima Hussaini, made a film that answers those questions, and it's personal.

Fazili and Hussaini were filmmakers in Afghanistan until they were threatened by the Taliban. They decided to escape to Tajikistan with their two young daughters. There, the family applied for asylum in Australia. When that application was denied, they faced a difficult choice - go back to Afghanistan and hope for the best or seek refuge in Europe. They chose the latter, and in the process, decided to turn their cameras on themselves and their two girls.

Their new film, "Midnight Traveler," documents every step of that journey from Afghanistan to Hungary - discrimination, death threats and confusing immigration systems, as well as the love and faith that kept them going. Now, some people might question why you would want to make a film while fleeing for your life. But reflecting on the experience, Fazili says making the film helped him get through the ordeal. This is his voice. We provided the voiceover.

HASSAN FAZILI: (Through interpreter) It was this film that gave me hope. It was this film that gave me the feeling of being alive. Shooting this film gave me the feeling that one day, I'd succeed. One day, the problems would end. One day, we'll arrive at last.

MARTIN: The film was shot using the family's cell phone cameras over the course of three years. Filmmaker Emelie Mahdavian coordinated with the family to get the footage and edit it to its final form. We asked her to tell us more about the film, and I started by asking how she met the family.

EMELIE MAHDAVIAN: I wrote my dissertation on Tajikistan and made a film in Tajikistan before this, so I had this rather specific community of filmmakers that I was tapped into. And I met them through that community. And I was helping with writing letters to try to support them in receiving protection without traveling on this migrant route. And then it became clear they weren't going to receive protection, and I agreed to help producing what would turn out to be this film documenting their experience as migrants.

MARTIN: I understand that the technique of it is not the most important thing about it. But it is still remarkable that in the midst of all of this, they were able to film what they were going through and get the film out. I mean, is there anything you can tell us about that? Like, how did they do it?

MAHDAVIAN: Yeah, so there's two things there. The first is, a lot of people wonder, well, you know, you're fleeing for your life. How do you have time to make a film? And the reality, unfortunately, is that fleeing for your life involves a lot of being stuck in camps and waiting. And for people who are used to working, working hard, having normal lives, being asked to sit somewhere for 12 months with nothing to do in a small room in really cramped quarters with other families close to you - it's very hard to actually do nothing. So although there are harrowing moments of flight and moments where they're having immediate peril that they're dealing with, in a lot of cases, they were actually keeping themselves occupied and sane by making this film.

As far as the logistics, what we did was in each country they would go through, I arranged a contact to meet them. And that contact would bring a laptop and a hard drive, and they would copy all of the footage that they had shot to date off onto that hard drive, and the contact would mail it to me. So that way, they didn't have to deal with, you know, trying to manage that themselves. They just had to meet someone.

MARTIN: A lot of the shots are of the girls, the daughters, playing, trying to explore their surroundings, especially at the refugee camps in Bulgaria. And there's another in Serbia. There have been sort of other films that explore, you know, parents trying to give their children a sense of the beauty of the world, even in the midst of, you know, ugly circumstances. What struck you about that?

MAHDAVIAN: Well, so I was speaking with them as they were going through the experience and then often receiving the footage and going through it months later because there was hundreds of hours to go through. It took a lot of time. And what I found was that while there were these moments of high drama, it was, as you said, punctuated by a lot of time of trying to keep normalcy for their family.

And I felt like by allowing this family to shoot the story themselves - you know, frame their lives and tell their own story - what we discover is the way in which, amidst this kind of tension and anxiety of the migrant experience, there's also still the possibility for humor and joy and a much more diverse and rich humanity to emerge when we are in the hands of this family rather than in the hands of an outsider who's coming and looking for a quick story.

MARTIN: There's one scene that's just - it's hard to watch, even though you're not seeing sort of overt ugliness. It's when the - I think, like, this is when they're in Bulgaria. And there are anti-immigrant marches, anti-refugee marches in the streets. And there are - I mean, you can hear the chanting in the background, and you can just - you know, despite the best efforts, the children are hearing this, and they're affected by it, and it's terrifying.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

MAHDAVIAN: Yeah. The camp that the family is staying in Bulgaria is put on lockdown, and there's police guarding them, and they're told they can't leave their room. And meanwhile, outside, there's a protest, an anti-immigrant protest that begins. And so we see what it's like to be in a space on lockdown as the shouting and the angry protest outside grows larger and larger and eventually escalates into a fight.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Unintelligible).

MAHDAVIAN: The children are, you know, always living in one room, sometimes sharing that room with even other families, so there's really no protecting your children from the things that are going on in your lives, whether that's that you as parents are fighting because you're anxious or whether that's threats that are coming from the outside. There's a moment involving threats from the smugglers that they're with. As you say, there are these protests. There's a time that they're attacked when they're out in the streets.

And, you know, the children are with them in all of those moments, and they're hearing and seeing everything. And I think that is one of the most awful elements of this journey is that it's just very difficult to protect your children from the trauma of what this journey is.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, a bit of a spoiler alert, but not a big one. I mean, the film ends in Hungary, where their asylum case was considered legitimate. But can you tell us, you know, where they are now? I mean, there's a reason obviously that we're speaking to you...


MARTIN: ...And not to them.

MAHDAVIAN: They're in Germany. They have a pending case to be allowed to apply for asylum in Germany. And so they're still in limbo. They fled Afghanistan in 2015. And, you know, it's now 2019, and they still don't know for sure where they're going to live long-term. And I think that that longevity of time waiting in that kind of cumulative anxiety is one of the really difficult things about the migrant experience.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, you know, obviously, you know this area of the world very well, and you obviously, you know, move easily and comfortably all over the world. But for people who don't, what would you want them to know, either about this story or about this family?

MAHDAVIAN: Well, you know, when we were editing the film, that was one of my main jobs - was to try to think across the cultures and try to make sure that the film was going to be something that a person from, say, America or Europe could just throw themselves into without feeling that they needed a big education in the history of Central Asian politics. And at the same time, we wanted to keep it true to the experience of people from that region. And so that was a balancing act that we were dealing with as we worked on it.

And what we were hoping is that, rather than focusing on the kind of binary political rhetoric that right now tends to proliferate, that people could just throw themselves into being with this family, experiencing their journey as a family and not necessarily, you know, having to do a lot of work to think about the political history or the geography that inform the journey.

MARTIN: Does it ever worry you, though, that the only people who will be attracted to this film are people who are sympathetic to the families like this anyway? I mean, because, you know, we hear...


MARTIN: ...The rhetoric around immigration in most places, as we see in the film - it's not just in the United States - that many people - not all people, but many people - are very hostile to immigrants and refugees right now...


MARTIN: ...And that part of what this film does is it stands up for the individuality of each person, the dignity of each person and to say that each person has a story which deserves to be heard.


MARTIN: And I just wonder if there's any part of you that - you're not preaching. You're telling a story.

MAHDAVIAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But is there any part of you that feels like I'm preaching to the choir here? The only people who are going to watch is about people who already care.

MAHDAVIAN: Well, OK. So I live in very rural Idaho, so I actually live amidst a much more conservative community. So I - when I was editing, I think about how they would receive it. And that's part of why it was important to me to not frame their story in advance with politics but to allow their story to stand on its own.

And what I found in - at least in speaking to my friends and neighbors - is that people are open to being on a journey with somebody. They appreciate not being preached to first. And I think that's what allows the film to open a conversation. We aren't beginning first with that type of argument or political position we really are just trying to allow people to know what this journey is like.

MARTIN: That was Emelie Mahdavian talking to us from our bureau in New York. She's the editor and writer of the new film "Midnight Traveler." The film was shot by Hassan Fazili and his family during their three-year journey from Afghanistan to Hungary. Emelie, thanks so much for joining us.

MAHDAVIAN: Thank you for having me.

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