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FESTIVAL: UNFINISHED SYMPHONIES

March 17, 2019

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Filmmaker Hassan Fazili’s moving documentary Midnight Traveler
Filmmaker Hassan Fazili’s moving documentary Midnight Traveler

Midnight Traveler

here’s a moment in filmmaker Hassan Fazili’s moving documentary Midnight Traveler, in which his young daughter looks into the camera, giggles and says that she’s bored. She then takes out her phone, searches for Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us on a video streaming platform, and passionately starts to dance along to the music. A title card tells us that it’s Day 189 and that they, Hassan Fazili with his fellow filmmaker wife Fatima and two children, Nargis and Zahra, are in Krnjaca Camp in Serbia, six months after having fled the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In 2015, after his documentary profile of former Taliban commander Mullah Tur Jan aired on Afghan television, the Taliban put out a hit on Fazili. It was at that point that he took the decision of fleeing to Europe. Being a filmmaker, his natural instinct was to document the difficult journey that lay ahead of him with the help of three Samsung smart phones.

The film has an incredible workflow: since he needed to be constantly mobile and on the go, Fazili couldn’t carry around heavy equipment. So he only worked with a stack of SD-cards and in each country that he’d end up in, he would find contacts that would copy the footage for him, back it up on a hard-drive and then ship the contents to his producers in America, who were on-board with the project from the start. Fazili would then wipe the cards and keep shooting, as would his wife and daughters, who are all credited as the film’s camera operators.

Two Afghan filmmakers’ documentary films screened at the Berlin Film Festival are linked together by their unique approaches to storytelling and how they are both essentially about film editing

The documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and then played in the “Panorama” section at the Berlin Film Festival, is a raw, emotional and, above all, hands-on portrait of what it means to flee one’s homeland, and coming to terms with it. After the Berlin premiere, Fazili sits down with me and told me about the process: “We were living in circumstances where we couldn’t plan what to shoot in the future. We had to have our phones ready at all times, because if something started to happen, we would have to shoot immediately. We were trying to capture us as a family and our hopes, our fears and our dreams.”

Fazili with his fellow filmmaker wife Fatima and two children, Nargis and Zahra
Fazili with his fellow filmmaker wife Fatima and two children, Nargis and Zahra

I ask Fazili about the technical aspect of the film and how he decided to shoot everything on smart phones. He points out the advantages: “Lots of people say, if an artist has to overcome a sort of challenge, it improves the work he is doing and, with this film, since we couldn’t work with professional cameras, we tried to make a good thing out of what he had to work with. First of all, mobile phones are small, so when we want to catch something, they are ready right away. And because they are so small and with you all the time, they start to feel like a part of your body. As a consequence, the viewer is very close to the feeling of any scene, because we captured that scene instantly and how it felt in that moment.”

When I mention the aforementioned sequence in the film, of his daughter dancing, Fazili has to grin. This is a family project for him after all, a way to keep the four close together and occupied, so he has many fond memories. But how has it all affected his children? And have they seen the film? “The world we adults live in is full of problems and terrible things, but the world of kids has lots of sweetness and kindness. So I never tried to interrupt their world and what they were living, I just tried to capture the way they saw things, the joy they found in life, whatever was going on for them. As far as watching the film is concerned, that’s a difficult question. They really want to, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea. I’m still trying to figure out how to talk to them about it.”

One reason for that could be that the film captures the entire experience, such as the more unpleasant, traumatic sides of the journey. In Bulgaria, random pedestrians attack the family. But Fazili is quick to stress that while “we were showing the reality we were living in, there are also good people wherever you go, so for everything difficult that happened to us in Bulgaria, there were also people who were very helpful to us.”

Mariam Ghani’s What We Left Unfinished uses digitisation to paint a picture of Afghan film history
Mariam Ghani’s What We Left Unfinished uses digitisation to paint a picture of Afghan film history

I finally ask Fazili about his current status, with him living in Germany at the moment. “The journey of a migrant doesn’t have a clear starting and end point. It’s a long process that goes on and on. We arrived in Germany 10 months ago, but it’s really not clear what our circumstances are and whether we are going to stay or not. It’s completely up in the air. We try to be a family that works hard and stays hopeful.”

What We Left Unfinished

While in Midnight Traveler digital possibilities give an Afghan refugee an outlet to tell his personal story, another documentary that played at the Berlin Film Festival, Mariam Ghani’s What We Left Unfinished, uses digitisation to paint a picture of Afghan film history. The two films might not have much in common thematically, but they are bound by their unique approaches to storytelling and how they are both essentially about film editing.

Ghani focuses on five unfinished Afghan films between 1978 and 1992, made during tumultuous communist regime changes in Afghanistan. After unearthing the footage through a digitisation project of the National Film Institute of Afghanistan, with which she has been associated, Ghani manages to track down and speak to the filmmakers involved in these unfinished state-commissioned productions and talks to them about working through censorship and a general period of danger. It’s interesting to see the footage today; Ghani skillfully cuts scenes from the films with what the filmmakers are telling her, creating an experimental and playful portrait of Afghan film and history. But it’s unreliable too, and Ghani knows it. Her treatment of the footage mirrors the content and narration of the time.

I speak to Ghani after the world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and ask her about her editing process. How did she manage to make sense of all this? “I first heard about the unfinished films in 2012 and it was an irresistible rumour to me. Each of these films had completed principal photography but not gone into edit yet, except one. So it was an enormous amount of footage to deal with. It was a real challenge to construct a rational path through all the material. But then I wanted multiple voices to be heard and read. Because when we are speaking about a period like Afghanistan from 1978 to 1992, it is important to me not to offer a single reading.”

Ghani has fun constructing moments where fact and fiction is twisted
Ghani has fun constructing moments where fact and fiction is twisted

And therefore, there is no singular path in this film. There are several instances where a scene being shown is in direct contradiction to what is being said by one of the interviewees. Or a scene is being shown parallel to something being said, while the footage is from another film entirely. Ghani has fun constructing such moments where fact and fiction is twisted: “There’s been too much trauma and too much splintering of history and memory to allow for an official account that is linear. For me, when touching on this kind of history, it’s important to leave some ambivalence in the story. I wanted to leave gaps and allow spaces like that to remain in the film.”

I finally ask her about what she herself learnt about Afghan history through these unfinished films, and how What We Left Unfinished comments on the same: “There was so much instability during the time, which of course affected the cinema being made. Because it was all state commissioned and state supported, even when someone was working independently, he did so within the system. I think of these films like fever dreams of the communist state, because they are fictions but they contain elements of the real. There was this paranoia in the air in that period, about being watched. If you said a minister’s hair was crooked, you could end up in jail and be dead five days later.” No wonder then, that Ghani uses a knotty style that is itself ambiguous, but it’s fascinating and watchable all the same.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 17th, 2019