February 4, 2019
Sundance 2019

'Midnight Traveler': How Three Cellphones Documented a Harrowing Journey

A family on the run, documented.

Afghanistan-based filmmaker Hassan Fazili is on the move. After making a film that criticized the Taliban, the Taliban put a hit out on the director to be murdered. Unable to seek asylum, Fazili, his wife, and two daughters are traveling out of the country and toward a country that can protect them. Their goal is to make it to the European Union (EU) and seek asylum there. But the journey, extending over three years, has not been an easy one.

Midnight Traveler documents the Fazili family's dangerous journey to safety. Sleeping in decrepit old buildings, cold forests, and refugee camps in Bulgaria, the price Fazili must pay for his art is unprecedented.

A filmmaker by nature, Fazili records each aspect of this journey with the help of three cellphone cameras. That's all he has at his disposal, and that's all he'll need to portray the abuse immigrants face in foreign countries as well as, yes, the hope a determined family can hold onto in the most tiring of conditions. Unfolding like a video journal with the highest of stakes, Fazili's film is about the power of the image, and the need to record as an act of crucial preservation.

Two days after Midnight Traveler premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, No Film School spoke with Emelie Mahdavian (writer, producer, editor), Su Kim (producer) and Gretchen Jude (composer), about working with the Fazili family, editing footage shot on three camera phones, and the current whereabouts of the restless filmmaker.

Hassan Fazili's 'Midnight Traveler.'

No Film School: How did you both first discover the work of Hassan Fazili?

Emelie Mahdavian: I had already known him, as I had programmed one of his shorts in a festival, and he became a friend of mine. I knew him before [embarking on this] film. I programmed his short in a festival not very long before this, so I was regularly in contact with him as the problem started. I've been on the film from the beginning and I knew him quite well already.

Su Kim: I met Emelie while she was a fellow at the BAVC MediaMaker Fellowship, and we met at the Full Frame Film Festival, and I was immediately intrigued and really loved the material. I thought the film was very special, and told Emelie, if there was anything I could help with, I would be more than happy to help. She was working alone at the time, on the producing aspects of the film, and so I became a little more involved as time passed, as things were happening with the family, and with the film's progress and fundraising, and getting some recognition at pitch forums.

NFS: A film like this doesn't make its way to the finish line without a number of institutional supporters. Who were some that helped the film reach completion?

Kim: I don't think the film would have been made in the way it was made (and it wouldn't have received the attention it received) if it wasn't for Camden's Points North Pitch Forum. Points North was, I think, the second acceptance we got, and then we won the pitch. Most of our eventual funders were on that panel. Also, Cara Mertes offered the project a travel grant on the spot.

NFS: How were you able to use that?

Mahdavian: At the time I was going to Serbia, in order to work with Hassan in person, we used it for that.

NFS: At what point did you know Hassan would be documenting he and his family's journey attempting to get to the European Union (EU)?

Mahdavian: We decided to start documenting when they were in Tajikistan and it seemed like their case wasn't being accepted. As Hassan made decisions, the family was always documenting them. We didn't know what would happen in their lives, so we didn't know the scope of the story until later. We didn't know it would be a feature film until a little further on in their journey.

NFS: How did you receive the footage that Hassan was shooting? Did you get it all at once?

Mahdavian: I arranged contacts in all of the countries that they were traveling through to meet them, and to copy the footage. They were shooting on SD cards on their mobile phones, and I would have somebody meet them and copy it off to a hard drive, and then mail the hard drive to me, in each country. Then in Hungary, because they couldn't leave the camp that they were in (at the end of the film), I had a contact in Serbia who would top off their mobile phone data and they would send me out the footage, through their mobile phone service.

NFS: You were getting it piecemeal?

Mahdavian: I was editing simultaneously, so we were getting it and trying to organize it and log it while they were still shooting, yeah.

NFS: Did the shooting on three separate cameras make the process of compiling all of this footage more difficult?

Mahdavian: It was a lot of very different footage.

Kim: It was different footage and so it was a primarily a post-production issue, because each phone had a different way of recording. It recorded in different formats

Mahdavian: It was also disorganized when we would receive it, because obviously, they didn't have any means of organizing it. We had to organize it before we edited. We had a pretty massive process to get it cleaned up, and to where we could actually form it [into shape].

NFS: How did you decide on when to include on-screen text marking the number of days the Fazili family has been on the run?

Kim: That was later. I was just asking my co-editor, Kristina Motwani, because she might remember. I'm like, "When did we decide to do that?" It was a little later. We did some assemblies first, and we didn't have any text at that point, and it was just as we were honing the edit did we start writing the intertitles and those cards.

"The author was a prominent intellectual who became a refugee, and was forced to live in exile in Pakistan and was then assassinated."

NFS: How far along were you when the choice to include family voiceover at certain points in the film became apparent?

Mahdavian: That was when I went to Serbia to work with Hassan. That was when we recorded those. It was mid-way through their journey. At the beginning of the film, there's a voiceover that's actually their daughter reading a book. It's not written; it's not from them. The rest of the film's voiceovers are their first-person perspectives, but that one is from a book called The Ego Monster, which is a very important work of Afghan post-modern literature, which I brought to him when I went to Serbia. He liked it, and so we went ahead and used the opening for the film. The author was a prominent intellectual who became a refugee, and was forced to live in exile in Pakistan and was then assassinated.

NFS: And for the other voiceovers, were you doing various interviews on the side to store for later?

Mahdavian: The voiceovers from his daughter were recorded by me when I was in Serbia with them. One of the voiceovers from Hasaan is the original recording from Serbia, and the others, well, they were all recorded in Serbia, but then we re-recorded them, just for the sake of clarity and sound quality, later, when we were in Germany.

Hassan Fazili's 'Midnight Traveler.'

NFS: The film has this futuristic, guttural almost haunting sci-fi-like score at certain points in the film. How did you discuss how and when to incorporate this music into the film?

Gretchen Jude: I was in on the process somewhat early, at around the end of 2016. Emelie started describing the project to me, and I was really excited by it. We figured out an overarching conceptual framework, discussing the material, and what we thought the arc of this piece might be, and it seemed like some of the things that came up were, first of all, the sound limitations of an original source material. [The film] was recorded on phones, so the sound was very rough, and we decided to really go with that roughness, and when we brought in the sound designer much later on (in Berlin last winter or fall), he had a similar impulse.

In contrast to that roughness, we did an electronic processing where I put a lot of that sound through, much of it is the voices, and I really wanted to emphasize the ephemeral and fragile nature of this journey, especially the girls in this journey. To underline that, I used a lot of my own voiceover. By that I mean, I didn't use their voices, but I was thinking of their voices, and what I hear of their voices, and their kind of tempers in the footage that I heard [to create the score].

NFS: Had you considered creating a full score for the film?

Jude: The intention, I think, was to include a full score, from the beginning, and as it progressed, I was in touch with Emelie. I went to work with her in person, and I would do a lot with watching of the cuts that she had at the time, and I composed directly to what I saw on the screen, and then we recorded the musical impulses, and then we used a lot of those recordings in terms of composing, once we got to more fine cuts.

NFS: There's a scene toward the end of the film where one of Hassan's daughters goes missing and he reflects on what he would if he were to search for her and find her body; he would film it. You present this contemplation over a completely black screen. Could you take us through the process of presenting that powerful sequence?

Mahdavian: As soon as we recorded that voiceover (and as soon as I knew that it would be in the film), I really wanted it to be at least partially over black, because the point is what he didn't solve, and I felt that that would resonate backward in the film, because there are some other moments that he wasn't able to film. I think there's a kind of unfortunate impulse among audiences to want to see the worst things that happen to people when like, as a father, he has responsibilities to his family as well, and he can't always turn on the camera when something horrible is happening. There are these ethical crossroads that he breaches on the day that his daughter goes missing, I thought it would be a poignant way of addressing that issue across the film.

I really wanted it to be black, but that wasn't a popular idea at first. A lot of our advisors weren't in agreement with this choice. I think what it came down to was figuring out how we got in and out of that black, and how we were treating the scene around it. Su and I, at the end, were still playing around with it, after we come out of the black, and we're seeing his daughter, and we stay with her for a while...what can come after that? It's such a harrowing and upsetting scene, and you want to have a moment to just be with his daughter, and let her speak, and see her, and sort of treasure her, given what he's just said.

The other thing we could have really put after it was the most bureaucratic moment, but I think what it ended up being about was the treating of the in and out of that black, and the in and out of that whole sequence so that the arc of it worked, and the black read as the unshot moments, rather than as missing footage.

"They just keep going, and going, and going, and even today, they're still really living in a kind of purgatory, so, how do you wrap that up for the audience, since the project was just to address directly, the fact that, even as a filmmaker, he wants a different ending, just as he does as a person."

NFS: Before the film comes to a conclusion, Hassan says that the best way to end the film would be with his daughters in a park. We're amazed, as an audience, when we see that, because we're not sure what came first (the scene in the park or Hassan's wish to end the film that way). Could you speak about the use of montage and editing in the film?

Mahdavian: The montages had existed in the film as an idea from pretty early on, and the notion of the montages, particularly the one in the woods, had been there for a while. The ending, like when he says, "I'm imagining my daughters at a park and I'm imagining us arriving at our destination," I found footage that, as much as possible, would match the imagination he had described already in the voiceover. The voiceover preceded selecting that footage, but the idea of giving the audience a glimpse into the ending he's waiting for...that did precede his voiceover, or anything else. We talked about the story structure, and how, in reality, these stories don't really end. They just keep going, and going, and going, and even today, they're still really living in a kind of purgatory, so, how do you wrap that up for the audience, since the project was just to address directly, the fact that, even as a filmmaker, he wants a different ending, just as he does as a person. He wants to see this happy ending, just like we do, but as you said, it's a mirage. We explore it with this kind of happy, imaginary montage that we then leave behind when we come back to real life.

NFS: How did you know that you had reached completion for the specific story that you were telling?

Kim: When we saw the footage from Hungary, which is really like the most horrifying thing, I think, in the world, because it's like imprisoned children, and knowing that all along their goal had been Europe, and that is, in fact, the European border, it really felt like we had at least one possible ending, and we cut to that, and then as things have gone forward, there hasn't been any more resolution, so we haven't changed the ending.

NFS: Wow, so they're still searching for a permanent home?

Kim: They are. They are only at the very beginning of their asylum claim in Germany, and they're fighting the Dublin convention rules, which would have them be deported back to Hungary.

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design. 

 

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