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

Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili (bottom left) and his wife, filmmaker Fatima Hussaini (top left), with their daughters, Nargis (top right) and Zahra.
Courtesy of Oscilloscope
Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili (bottom left) and his wife, filmmaker Fatima Hussaini (top left), with their daughters, Nargis (top right) and Zahra.

Since 2015, under the threat of the Taliban, Afghan filmmakers Hassan Fazili and Fatima Hussaini, along with their two young daughters, have been on the run for their lives.

The family fled Afghanistan after the extremist group had called for Fazili's death over a film he'd made about one of its commanders.

Even as the refugee family navigates a still-incomplete journey — of death threats, discrimination and paralyzing immigration systems — Fazili and Hussaini turn their cameras on themselves and their daughters.

Hundreds of hours of footage that Fazili and his family all shot on their three cell phone cameras emerge as the new documentary, Midnight Traveler.

Although the film has already started to roll out in theaters, their journey isn't over. The family awaits a pending application to remain in Germany, where they've been living since April 2018.

Filming two years of the family's three-year quest for safety and stability — from Afghanistan to Hungary — kept Fazili sane, he said in a video statement.

"I felt like a parasite, a lowly person. Sometimes I felt like giving up," he said. "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 will end. One day, we'll arrive at last."

Producer Emelie Mahdavian, who edited the massive catalog of video, met the family through a community of filmmakers in Tajikistan in 2015, where they were applying for protection in other countries.

In an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, Mahdavian said she arranged to have a contact to meet the family in each country they passed through, and bring a laptop and a hard drive to back up their most recent footage that the contact could then mail back to her in the U.S.

As a first-person account, Mahdavian said the film breaks from traditional journalistic coverage of Europe's refugee crisis to tell a more humanistic story.

"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," she said.

Fazili said in a press statement that, behind the camera, he struggled to balance his roles as both a protective parent and an artist.

"With this film, the more problems my family has and the more pain and suffering my eyes see, the better the film becomes — and I do not know what my responsibility is at that moment: father or director?"

Mahdavian told NPR that "moments of high drama [were] punctuated by a lot of time of trying to keep normalcy for their family."

"Fleeing for your life involves a lot of being stuck in [refugee] camps and waiting, and for people who are used to 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."

In the editing process, Mahdavian, a resident of largely conservative rural Idaho, said she considered how audiences that might not be sympathetic to migrants' stories would receive the film.

"What I found — at least in speaking to my friends and neighbors — is that people are open to being honest on a journey with somebody they appreciate not being preached to first," she said. "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."

"I think that's what allows the film to open a conversation ... we really are just trying to allow people to know what this journey is like."

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Eliza Dennis is a producer for NPR's afternoon news podcast, Consider This. She started her NPR journey in 2018 as a Story Lab intern and joined Weekend All Things Considered shortly after.