Midnight Traveler: One Family's Epic Tale of Survival

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Tuesday October 08, 2019 - 12:27:00 PM

Extraordinary. Harrowing. Heroic. Stoic. Suspenseful. Nail-biting. Frightening. Exhausting. Unforgettable.

These are just a few of the words that come to mind in an attempt to capture the experience of watching Midnight Traveler, the cinematic saga of one family's attempt to survive the challenge of forced migration.

Midnight Traveler is an astonishing record of an epic tale of survival that follows an Afghan family of four—Hassan, his wife Fatima, and theirs daughters, precocious Nargis and little Zahra—on a perilous three-year, 3,500-mile journey.

It would have been a major accomplishment had this film been produced by a major studio with a big budget, a well-crafted script by an A-list screenwriter, and a cast of internationally known actors. Instead, this is a documentary—a homemade movie of a family made homeless by political division and the perils of life in a combat zone.

Miraculously, despite having to deal with armed police, human traffickers, smugglers, and attacks by anti-immigrant gangs, the family survives this road-trip from Hell intact. Even more miraculously, Fazili and his wife (also a filmmaker) were able to capture their ordeal on the family's three mobile phones. Those fraught images form the heart of Fazili's transfixing docudrama. 

In 2015, filmmaker Hassan Fazili's life was thrown into turmoil after his documentary, Peace in Afghanistan, was aired on national TV. The Taliban took offense and called for his death, forcing the director, his wife and two daughters, to flee to Tajikstan—the beginning of a harrowing, three-year journey through war-zones and refugee camps, in hopes of finding security and safety in Europe. 

On the 51st day of their journey (by car and by foot), Fazili's family is stranded in Bulgaria. A smuggler is threatening to take the children and assault the parents if they don't give him more money. The family is arrested by local police and held for 12 days. 

By Day 102, they've made it to a refugee camp. But, instead of finding sanctuary, they discover the camp is surrounded by angry gangs of local men out to attack migrants. Fazili is hit trying to protect Nargis from the punches of an angry attacker while Zahra clings to her mother and screams in terror. The family decides to strike out for Serbia, 245 miles away. 

Day 109: The family is deep in a forest trying to sleep on the ground in freezing temperatures. After surviving 20 days walking through a forest (and occasionally being forced to run to avoid capture), they reach Serbia, only to be turned away by a security guard who coldly informs them that there is no room at his camp and then turns his back on them. 

Day 114: The Fazilis take refuge in an abandoned high-rise. Snow blows in through the open windows of the unfinished building as they try to sleep on beds of concrete and cardboard. 

Day 189: They have made their way to another refugee camp where their names will be entered on a list for people seeking permission to enter Hungary. The wait will take another 475 days. 

One of the marvels of Midnight Traveler is the way it captures the most intimate moments of family life—the shared love as well as the occasional bickering—that manage to keep despair at bay. This family may have no home and an uncertain and possibly empty future but they keep going because they know they can depend on one another. The resilience of the two young children is especially remarkable. Even in the midst of a cold forest, the sisters still delight in teasing one another. Only rarely, do they succumb to the frightful uncertainty of their new lives. Given her tenacity, it's especially hared to watch Nargis, confined to the walls of a refugee camp, breaking out in tears as she confesses, "I'm bored. I don't like it here any more." 

And there's an amazing—and disturbing—moment when Hassan, in a startling act of honesty, shamefully confesses to a moment when his training as a filmmaker threatened to overrule his responsibilities as a father. 


Dispossessed and desperate migrants are too frequently portrayed as sub-human riff-raff. Midnight Traveler corrects this false narrative. As we marvel at the grit and resilience of the Fazili family, we realize that migrants—be they families or individuals—are nothing short of heroic in their commitment to survival, at whatever risk and no matter the cost. 

The film is playing at the Landmark Opera Plaza and Landmark Berkeley.