The New Yorker:
Hassan Fazili is an Afghan refugee under maximum duress, fleeing the eye of the Taliban and seeking asylum for himself and his family in the face of unbending bureaucracies. He is also, inexorably, a filmmaker. It might be said that his cinematic vision, his intellectual gesture in carving the frame, afflicts him throughout his three-year, thirty-five-hundred-mile flight from Afghanistan to Germany. During the thesis scene of his shattering new documentary, “Midnight Traveler,” he laments, in voice-over, that he hates the cinema. “The harder life was for us, the stronger the images were,” Fazili said, earlier this year, in an interview with Filmmaker magazine. The avarice of the artist can be terrible, and terribly sustaining. For persecuted artists, it is also the conduit through which they may leave their trace, may survive.
For Fazili, it had been a modest, modern artist’s life. Self-taught, he worked in theatre, television, and film, as a director and a cinematographer. He also helped his wife, Fatima Hussaini—who, like many Afghan women, had not been allowed to attend school—in her own filmmaking. A candid partnership formed out of the gendered tensions of their marriage. In Fazili’s silent short film, “Mr. Fazili’s Wife,”from 2011, Hussaini plays an abandoned wife struggling to provide for her young daughter, who is played by Nargis Fazili, the couple’s firstborn. The film, which Fazili has said he wrote during a time when he had considered separating from Hussaini, potently critiques the patriarchal economics that tether the security of women to the whims of men.
“Midnight Traveler” opens with home-video footage of the family in Kabul, where they lived until 2015. There, Fazili and Hussaini associated with other young Afghan students, media workers, and artists, who rejected the country’s conservatism. They were the co-proprietors of Kabul’s Art Café and Restaurant, one of many social venues that provided something like private, political sanctuary for young people, especially women, forming their ideas of social autonomy. There, balladeers could sing protest songs, women could smoke hookah next to men, and cubicles provided space where the devout could retire to pray. But the café became a target of conservative Muslim clergy, who declared it a breeder of Western ideology that would upend Afghan tradition. After a clergy-organized boycott and a police raid, Fazili and Hussaini were forced to close down.
“Midnight Traveler” takes place in this aftermath. It’s 2016, and the family, who by now have grown by one, with the birth of little Zahra, is in Tajikistan, where they have been living for fourteen months. Fazili is eating a meal on the steps of the home at which they have taken refuge. Ants swirl at his feet, and he greets them as friendly visitors. Hussaini scolds him, and Fazili responds, “They’re living beings. They have a right to breathe, to walk, to live.” (The family speaks Afghan Persian. English, Bulgarian, and Turkish are also spoken in the film.) The family left Afghanistan, Fazili explains, because Fazili had directed a documentary about Mullah Tur Jan, a former Taliban commander who had renounced the cause. After the film aired on Afghan television, Mullah Tur Jan was murdered, and an acquaintance informed Fazili that a bounty had been placed on his head. The family fled to Tajikistan seeking asylum, but the Tajik government has informed them that they can no longer stay.
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