Hyperbole alert: if I see a better documentary this year than Midnight Traveler (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 4), I’ll eat my hat. Well, one of my hats: as those who know me are aware, I own an assortment of millinery. I wonder if it’s easier to digest felt or straw … but I digress.
Shot over the course of 600 harrowing days, Midnight Traveler is the video diary of Afghan journalist Hassan Fazili, filmmaker wife Fatima and daughters Zahra and Nargis. Taking the concept of cinéma vérité to the limit, Fazili’s film is culled entirely from footage shot on three cell phones. Don’t expect visual perfection; do expect pixilation and distortion.
“This is a story of a journey to the edge of Hell,” Midnight Traveler’s preface aptly and accurately warns us. In March 2015, Hassan’s Kabul video club came to the unwanted attention of a fundamentalist mullah, who promptly issued a death warrant against him; the family hurriedly packed up and left for neighboring Tajikistan, where they would spend the next 14 months applying for asylum abroad.
Those efforts failed. Beginning on the day the Fazilis were ordered to leave Tajikistan, Midnight Traveler follows them as they return home, then cross countless borders in a terrifying exodus to a seemingly unreachable promised land.
What begins as a film condemning the iniquities of religious extremism quickly becomes a film shaming the asylum policies of the First World. We see the massive stack of paperwork submitted to Australia that failed to convince that nation that the Fazili family were worthy of their mercy, and we see the horrifying conditions of concentration camps — sorry, ‘transit zones’ and ‘refugee camps’ — in countries such as Bulgaria and Serbia.
Amid these grim scenes are brief moments of beauty and laughter. Seeing Nargis paddle in the waters of Istanbul (probably the largest body of water this child of a landlocked nation had ever seen), the building of a Christmas snowman, and some bicycle lessons for Fatima are blessed reminders of relative normality amid cruelty and madness. Fazili further sharpens the contrast by inserting occasional footage of the family’s pre-2015 life into Midnight Traveler.
There have been other films about the migrant experience, but few if any told from the perspective of the migrant — and none with the immediacy and impact of this remarkable low-budget achievement.
My knowledge of 1930s Chinese cinema is slim to say the least, but it’s a little more robust now thanks to Pacific Film Archive’s series ‘Zheng Junli: From Shanghai’s Golden Age to the Cultural Revolution’. The series begins on Thursday, Oct. 3 with a 7 p.m. screening of director Shi Donshang’s newly restored 1932 feature Jen dou (Struggling).
Junli stars as Xiao Zheng, a working man engaged in a love triangle with brother Luan and Swallow (Yanyan Chen), a young woman living with her abusive father in the upstairs apartment. Xiao and Luan fight constantly, until they volunteer to battle the Japanese Army, which had invaded Manchuria in 1931.
A What Price Glory-style melodrama, Struggling has been beautifully restored by the China Film Archive. In common with many late period silent films, it’s technically impressive and benefits tremendously from the presence of Chen, who exudes star quality. As per usual for silent screenings at PFA, Judith Rosenberg will accompany the film on organ, and Junli’s son Dali will be in attendance.