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Emelie Mahdavian and Su Kim: The Extraordinary Film that Will Change Your Mind About Refugees

Filmmakers Mahdavian and Kim.

As conflicts spread and climate change worsens, the refugee crisis worldwide is breaking astounding records. There are currently 70.8 million forcibly displaced people around the globe, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. Each and every one of these individuals has a tale to tell about overcoming immense obstacles and dangers as they sought safety and stability away from a home they were forced to leave. One such story is told in the documentary “Midnight Traveler,” a movie filmed by the Afghani director Hassan Fazili and his family on three cell phones over the course of three years. The film documents their displacement from Afghanistan after receiving threats from the Taliban because of a film Fazili made about the terrorist organization, and their unexpected journey toward Europe in search of refuge. 

Emelie Mahdavian and Su Kim, the producers of “Midnight Traveler,” spoke with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer about the award-winning film in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.” Mahdavian, the editor, writer and producer of the film, was in touch with the Fazili family before they began filming “Midnight Traveler,” and explains how all along, both they and she had hoped their journey and story would be a much shorter, much less difficult tale to tell. Mahdavian also expresses the worries she experienced for the Fazili’s throughout the filming and production of this important work of art.

“I never knew what they were going to encounter,” Mahdavian explains. “And I never knew what kind of needs they would have, and whether I would be able to help them or not. And I was very concerned to make sure that it was clear to them that I wanted them not to put themselves in risk for the sake of the film. Unfortunately, the migrant route is a risky thing to be on, and there was not a lot that they often could do to protect themselves or keep themselves out of risky situations. So the film ends up documenting those.” 

To Kim, who also dealt with the more technical aspects of converting footage shot on cell phones into a film that could be screened in cinemas, the heart of the film is the unique perspective it lends to viewers about the crisis they’ve likely only read about in newspapers. 

“The story of the refugee crisis, the migration crisis, is really a story that’s from the gaze of outsiders, and from the point of view of journalism, often,” Kim tells Scheer on his podcast. “And I think it’s really hard to relate as a sort of a person living in a very comfortable [life] to imagine what happens when you take this journey. What was special for me with this material in this film was that I could imagine myself in his and his family’s situation, and then the worst thing that could happen happens, and then how would I react? I think that that gaze on that story hasn’t been a part of the conversation.” 

“This is the story of our time, because the refugees,” Scheer responds, “wherever they’re coming from, there’s a tendency to try to sort of treat them as a problem for other people, intrusive to other societies. And we forget all of these people have their own harrowing story to one degree or another. They’ve been uprooted.” 

Throughout the conversation, the Truthdig Editor in Chief returns often to a powerful quote by Fazili, which Scheer interprets as a commentary on the political machinations, including those by the U.S. during its now nearly two-decade-long war with Afghanistan, that led him and his family to such perilous circumstances. “My family, like leaves ripped away from a tree in a storm, was taken from our land and thrown in every direction by outside forces,” Fazili says, “As a father, I am tired from the strain of protecting my family from threats we encountered on this route. But as a filmmaker, these wanderings and troubles are appealing to me, so we all became the subject of this film.” 

Listen to the full conversation between Mahdavian, Kim and Scheer as they discuss the technical, political and emotional aspects of “Midnight Traveler.”

Official trailer

Introduction by Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Robert Scheer

Joshua Scheer


Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of
“Scheer Intelligence,” where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Emelie Mahdavian and Su Kim, the producers of a very important new film called Midnight Traveler, [directed] by Hassan Fazili, a person whose, journalist whose life was—and filmmaker, artist whose life was threatened in Afghanistan, his home country. He took his wife and two daughters—his wife was also a filmmaker; two daughters, one of whom had already been involved in theater a bit. And they went on this horrendous, harrowing journey of a refugee. And they produced this film using basically—you’ll correct me if I’m wrong—phones, handheld cameras, so they were not noticed by people very much. People are familiar with them now. And they made—he made a documentary on the go; he saved it on little discs, and when he got to safe places he could send it on; then he erased the discs, put it back in his phone. Why don’t you take us through that process, how this film got to be made. It was a big hit at Sundance this year, and it opened last night in New York. It will be opening in other theaters; in Los Angeles, where I’m doing this recording, it will be opening October 4th at the NuArt. It’s a must-see film. So just take us through the beginning. How did this film get to be made?

Emelie Mahdavian: So this is Emelie Mahdavian. I’m the producer, the writer, and the editor of the film. And I’ve been on the film from the beginning. I wrote my PhD dissertation on filmmaking during the Tajik Civil War and afterwards, so I’ve written a fair amount about and studied filmmaking during conflict, and migration as a consequence of conflict. And I met the family through connections in Tajikistan. They’re, as you said, they’re from Afghanistan, but they fled initially to Tajikistan, and that’s where the film begins. So I met them through connections there. And I was trying to help them avoid what actually transpires in the film, which is that they end up on the migrant route to Europe. And when it became clear that the family was going to be forced to become migrants, I agreed to collaborate with them and document what was happening to their family. And as you said, it was really only possible for them to shoot on their mobile phones.

So the whole film was shot by the family collaboratively. So it’s not just Hassan, but it’s also his wife Fatima, who’s also a filmmaker. Their older daughter Nargis, who’s eight at the start of the film, actually shoots quite a bit as well. And then the youngest daughter, who was three at the start of the film, doesn’t shoot too much, but a little. And so it’s, you know, it’s a collaboratively told story of the experience of migration across Eastern Europe from Central Asia, you know, towards asylum in Europe.

RS: And this is the story of our time, because the refugees, wherever they’re coming from, there’s a tendency to try to sort of treat them as a problem for other people, intrusive to other societies. And we forget all of these people have their own harrowing story to one degree or another. They’ve been uprooted. The description provided by director Hassan Fazili, he said, “My family, like leaves ripped away from a tree in a storm, was taken from our land and thrown in every direction by outside forces. As a father, I am tired from the strain of protecting my family from threats we encountered on this route. But as a filmmaker, these wanderings and troubles are appealing to me, so we all became the subject of this film.”

And then, so what we have here is the artist uprooted. And the one positive story is that modern technology—even though he was separated from film studios and high technology and expensive production—on his own, with his family, on the run, they were able to make an award-winning film that can reach millions of people now, that’s in the theaters. That is a positive story in an otherwise harrowing tale, right?

EM: Yeah, and I mean, the logistics of shooting on mobile phones are actually pretty complicated. So it took a lot of work for us to make it possible for them to, for instance, secure the footage and send it to me in the United States. And Su can talk about what goes into taking footage that was shot on mobile phones and making it into something that can open in a theater, and in New York City last night. It’s actually a pretty complicated and expensive process to take that technology, which is very on the one hand democratizing, but then bring it up to a standard that makes it broadcastable and distributable.

RS: Well let me just say, we’re doing this on my end, the taping, from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. And I think that’s a good caution that you just entered. We have the illusion somehow that media has become free and totally accessible. And as you point out, in order to become a credible product that you will find for a viewing audience, of any kind of length and seriousness, it often requires a great deal of technology and funding, even today.

Su Kim: This is Su Kim. So the actual production was on the cell phones. And you know, clearly it doesn’t cost anything except for actually shooting it on your phone and having the memory cards to store your footage. But in practical terms of actually creating a product that can be broadcast and also be, like, screened in movie theaters, they have to meet certain technical standards. And with the cell phone footage, many times there were a lot of different kind of frame rates. The film was supposedly being shot in 2997 frame rate, but in actuality, the frame rates varied. So it might be 2996, 2998; maybe sometimes 299, you know, whatever it may be. And so we ended up with over 50 different frame rates in the cut film.

So all of those frame rates had to be brought to the conventional frame rate of 2997 in order for us to work on the film. So that is an expensive process. And also there was a lot of technical work to be done on the film; everyone records footage on their phone, it’s–the sound is very, it’s variable. And so in order to create this immersive experience, we really had to create a soundscape for the film. And that was completely built by our composer, Gretchen Jude, and by our sound designer, Daniel Timmons.

RS: So let’s—we’ve done the technology a bit. And it’s, you know, without the kind of guidance—and of course, the director here was a professional, and his wife, and they had done work. So let’s get to the substance here. And as I say, it’s a generic story for our time, people uprooted, whether they’re in Syria, whether they’re in Afghanistan, what have you. The refugee is now the norm. And we tend to dehumanize the people called refugees, because they can also be inconvenient to stability of more established or settled societies.

So can you—what really drew, what attracted you to this story? And why do you think it’s a story that people should go see in the theaters? What is the–you know, in your mind, the significance? Because you both volunteered for this project. You heard about it, you supported it; he gives, the director gives you great credit for making it a reality. So why—what is the big message of Midnight Traveler?

SK: I mean, I wouldn’t use the word volunteered. You know, we embarked on this as a professional endeavor. Emelie and I spent a lot of time—

RS: I meant you believed in it, I meant you believed in the project.

SK: OK. I’m sorry. So what happened is, you know, as—for me there’s this, you know, the story of the refugee crisis, the migration crisis, is really a story that’s from the gaze of outsiders, and from the point of view of journalism, often. And I think it’s really hard to relate as a sort of a person living in a very comfortable—for me, it’s a comfortable life in New York City–to imagine what happens, you know, when you take this journey. What was special for me with this material in this film was that I could imagine myself in his and his family’s situation, and then the worst thing that could happen happens, and then how would I react? And really, that story plays out in front of the cameras, and also—and that’s what’s so powerful about the story.

And often, it’s kind of a story about waiting. Because not every day is like something, like—dramatic things don’t happen every day. It’s like these dramatic moments are, you know, just–they happen. And then most of the time, you know, you’re just living as a family and doing things, and looking after your children and watching them play, and really caring for them, and making sure that everything is OK. So I think that that gaze on that story hasn’t been a part of the conversation.

RS: Well, I think that’s an important sentence, that “really caring for them.” Because when we objectify people, and we do objectify refugees as a sort of category, we forget these are human beings with all the aspirations, concerns, emotions that the rest of us have. And they’re not just huddled masses in a camp. They are individuals of strong commitment, feeling, love, and so forth. And I think that’s the power of your film; you see, you get inside a family as it’s in, it’s being held by a thread in this life that we all share. But that, it’s not a very secure thread, because they are in the most vulnerable situation, being without country, without government, without support, without legitimacy. I mean, that’s sort of this condition that tens of millions of people seem to find themselves in now—maybe more than at any time except, you know, in huge World War II or something.

EM: Yeah, I think—this is Emelie—I think that we all forget that nobody sets out to be a refugee. That, you know, we can, any of us can imagine something terrible happening and having to deal with it. And, you know, when I came on board the project, they were—they had fled Afghanistan because of death threats against Hassan, the father, and the family, by the Taliban. But they were living in Tajikistan for about 14 months; it’s a Persian-speaking country, so they were relatively able to assimilate and have a life there.

And so when I met them in Tajikistan, they weren’t migrants, they weren’t refugees; I mean, they technically had already fled their country, but they had fled to a place that was culturally similar enough that their life was still kind of normal. And when we started this project, none of us knew what was going to happen to them; they didn’t know, we didn’t know; we all hoped it would be a short trip, [Laughs] and not the subject of a film like this.

And so I think part of what we were documenting was the process of coming to the realization that you are now seen by outsiders as among those sort of numbers of many. And you’re caught up in a bureaucratic system that, you know, just sees you as another case in a stack of cases. And that’s a very difficult realization to come to, I think, for any person. And it ends up placing your life in limbo for many, many years. And like I said, they have two daughters; their daughters’ lives were also in limbo for many years, and still are, in a sense. You know, without access to good schooling, without access to schooling in a language they could speak.

So I think that what is also powerful about the project is that it begins with them before they’re among those refugees. And it’s their—it’s, you know, told from their perspective, like Su said. So it’s not an outsider coming and finding people the moment they’re drowning on a beach, it’s a family documenting their life starting from, you know, the day before they actually find themselves in this difficult situation of being migrants.

RS: And it’s interesting, the role of journalist, observer, and then participant. As Hassan Fazili points out, he suddenly becomes a character in a film that he’s making, whereas previously he was making films about other people. And his family, this is—they are the cast, and so it’s not manipulating professionals or strangers. And that’s a duality here that doesn’t often occur. It does—it happened to, you know, a lot of political refugees, say from Germany in World War II, who were themselves artists and so forth; there’s quite a bit of literature about that. But we haven’t addressed the current refugee crisis in that way; you’re uprooting a whole range of people who were used to a different life.

And I just want to mention the current political atmosphere–at least, you know, with President Trump and others–there’s a, you know, a concerted effort to dehumanize the refugee. Or to say, oh, they’re just coming over for economic reasons, as if that’s unimportant anyway, which it isn’t. But you know, there’s a sort of thing of they’re the inconvenience, why are they there, let’s get a bigger wall against them. And it’s not just, obviously, here; it’s in Germany, it’s everywhere in the world now. And they are treated as an other–an other that you shouldn’t, or needn’t care that much about. I think that’s the power of your film appearing at this time.

EM: I hope so.

RS: Yeah, so you don’t think I’ve mischaracterized it? I don’t want to graft my own meaning on it. But it seems to me that’s the—

EM: No, I think we see it as–because it’s a personal story, because it’s the story of a family and it’s longitudinal, it follows them, you know—well, not follows them; they tell their story themselves over the course of over two years of their lives. You have an opportunity to be with a family, be in this experience. And I think that can help to get past the very polarizing rhetoric that we have right now and allow audiences to ponder what it would be like to be in the shoes of this one family, who obviously represent, you know, just a drop among an ocean of migrants right now. But I think that they’re a very compelling family. I think that they have—their daughters are absolutely charming; his wife is feisty and smart. And so they’re a family that, you know, we can all imagine ourselves hanging out with, and we can recognize elements of ourselves in them and put ourselves in their shoes.

RS: And the film is Midnight Traveler. It opened in New York–well, when this broadcasts, probably a week before. But—what is today’s date? I’m sorry, last night it opened—the 18th, right, September 18th. And then it will be opening in theaters; it’s going to open in L.A., by the time we have this up, it’ll probably be already up in L.A. at the NuArt theater. But it’ll be opening in theaters around the country, I gather.

EM: Yes.

RS: Yeah. And so let me just raise this question about, again, responsibility. And I don’t want to, you know, neither of you are from Afghanistan, but you’re sophisticated, knowledgeable people. But I want to get to this word, responsibility, because most of the refugees in the world are not refugees from bad weather conditions, or a bad economy in their own country. That does happen, we know, particularly with climate change that’s causing a lot of upheaval in terms of droughts and so forth. But actually, most of the refugees in the world now are there because the more settled countries, the more powerful countries, made decisions to intervene in their history. And certainly Afghanistan is an example of that. He had, your director Hassan Fazili had a death threat from the Taliban. But the Taliban composed elements that were once on the side of the United States, when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and we went through a whole war there.

And then they became later our enemy, the so-called freedom fighters, when Ronald Reagan was president. So this word—you know, the refugees did not create the conditions of their becoming refugees. And I think in Afghanistan, which is really the—yes, you picked the movie up once he’s left, but that he’s a refugee from Afghanistan, is a country that you know, the old Soviet Union and the United States had a lot to do with destabilizing, and causing people to become refugees. And in the movie you talk about a sense of loss. There was an Afghanistan that, you know, we think some of these countries—oh, they’re so miserable, people want to get out—no, there was a life in Afghanistan that people found supportive until the upheaval came.

EM: Yeah, and people don’t necessarily realize that in Kabul, women were wearing miniskirts in 1992, you know, and then the Taliban took over. So it’s certainly not that distant of a memory for people who are from there, you know, to imagine a very different condition of living. I think that one of the interesting things in our film is that Hassan found out about the death threat from the Taliban because a very, very old friend of his warned him. And that old friend, oddly enough, had begun working with the Taliban. And so that’s how he saw the name on the list.

So one of the things that we hope people see there is that, oddly enough, it was his willingness to maintain a friendship in spite of ideological differences. Obviously, he didn’t approve of this friend working with the Taliban, but it was an old friend, and he, you know, he would tell him honestly, you’re wrong, don’t do this. But he kept just enough connection with him that when the day came that he was on a Taliban hit list, he got notified. So there’s something, I think, interesting about a character who, you know, is on the one hand doing this kind of work of trying to push for an open society and women’s rights, but then on the other hand is able to maintain a friendship with somebody who has clearly adopted very different ideological positions. And in the end that—that, how do you say, openness on his part is what saves his life.

RS: Well, but again, you know, the Taliban was not just suddenly appeared. And that is not the focus of your movie, how did this all happen. But again, throughout the world when we see people becoming refugees, it’s often because some other people decided to bomb their country or invade their country or destabilize it for some, one reason or another. And—or finance, as in the case of the Taliban; some of that money came from, or the [Mujahideen] movement, came from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. In fact, some of the military hardware came from the United States, it was drawn into the Cold War. So when he talks about leaves—and I read this to you before, and you said well, it’s more metaphoric, but I think it’s important—he said, “My family, like leaves ripped away from a tree in a storm, was taken from our land and thrown in every direction by outside forces.”

Well, that can be said about refugees from Mexico right now. I mean, you had a drug war, you had a destabilizing; we were involved with the Mexican government, we decided that the society needed to, in some sense, be turned upside down. And so when a Mexican family, or a Persian family from Iran, after all the upheaval and the overthrow of Mossadegh and everything–I’m not going to go through that whole history. But if you look at country after country, people become refugees in part because of actions taken by the very societies that then want to refuse them entrance as refugees. So there’s a real disconnect there about how people get to be refugees, and the responsibility of these other societies that have actually inflicted damage on those countries, taking them in as refugees.

EM: Yeah.

RS: I mean, I think that’s sort of lost in the whole debate. And your film is a reminder of it. That, you know, if not for all this intervention, someone like Hassan Fazili could have been happy to be a film director in Afghanistan. He didn’t ask to become a refugee. This is not someone seeking better economic opportunity in the West or something, right.

EM: That’s right. And I think it’s worth saying that the journey itself takes a very large toll on people who undertake it. It’s–I think that the trauma of the migrant journey is often as great or greater than the trauma of the thing that caused a person to leave. It’s a huge financial toll on people who undertake it. So no one–no one would do it lightly. No one would spend that much time and put their family in that kind of risk for, you know, without a good reason. And in this case, you know, they had a pretty middle-class life in Kabul before they fled, and they don’t have a middle-class life right now.

You know, they’re still, many years later, living in a kind of limbo, waiting to find out what their long-term life is going to look like. So it’s–the journey is extremely hard. And you know, one thing that we could look at is the way in which the migration, the asylum system and the refugee system function, you know, differently. This is a family that did the thing that is logical, which is they fled to the closest country next door, where they spoke the language.

And they put in about 50 applications to receive protection from Tajikistan, you know, without having to put their daughters at risk, put their daughters in the hands of smugglers who could be very unscrupulous. And they were—they were turned down. It just so happens that the way that the system is designed doesn’t allow for an Afghan person who flees to the closest country next door where they feel safe, which in this case was Tajikistan, to receive any kind of long-term protection. So they were not just forced onto the route by the Taliban, they were also forced onto the route by a system that isn’t functioning very well to protect people who try to use a different route. A simpler route that ought to be also, you know, a safer route for someone like their two little girls, who were often in quite a lot of danger when they went on the Balkan route, you know, across Eastern Europe.

RS: Yeah. And why don’t you sketch that out to where we are now with this family? Because it, you know, it’s an exhilarating film and journey in terms of survival, but it hasn’t come to the Hollywood happy ending yet.

EM: No.

SK: I do want to add one last thing about that last question, is that I don’t think–what I really want is that the film can have the conversations about these political issues. I feel like the film really stands on its own as a piece of work that tells the story, and it’s sort of not our jobs as filmmakers to impart that meaning; it’s just really to be able to provide a way to have that discourse in society.

RS: Right. But what your film does say, unquestionably, is that these people have needs, are complex, are full human beings, and that we should care about what happens to them. They’re not an objectified category of the other.

SK: Exactly. And I think that that is what we planned on doing. And that’s what I’m very happy that we were able to achieve. And in a way, like, it’s—I think it’s, we really want everyone else to have that discussion. Because we’ve given them a platform to view the film and have that kind of discourse.

RS: Right. And it’s part of the complexity which I think is critical, because if you don’t have a view of other people as complex as yourself, or your own view, and as a human in all of its variations. You just mentioned, here is a family, a man, a devoted—an Afghan man devoted to his two daughters, right, in a society that some of us think of—oh, they don’t value women, or they don’t care, or women are expendable, or so forth. And you’ve actually presented a very different view. Is that not sort of the sleeper here?

EM: [Laughs] I think that his wife and his daughters, as characters in the film, are certainly some of the most compelling characters. You know, not least of all because they’re on camera quite a lot. But also, because like you say, some people have that view that Afghan women are quite demure, and that daughters are not, you know, free to do things like dance and go to school. Which, you know, in many cases is true.

In fact, Fatima, his wife, was not allowed to go to school, and she was illiterate until she was, you know, in her late teen years. And then she ended up completing school herself after they were married, even while she was a young mother. So it’s true that there is quite a lot of oppression of women, there’s serious problems with women’s rights and laws around women’s rights, even things like freedom to choose who you marry, or you know, to go against your father’s wishes.

There’s certainly issues in the legal system in Afghanistan, and also cultural issues. But that doesn’t mean that, like in many cultures, you don’t have people who think differently. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t have parents who love their children, whether they’re daughters or whether they’re sons. And so here we have, you know, young girls who like to dance around their bedroom, and a wife who, you know, is feisty and fights back at her husband. And I don’t think that’s as uncommon in Afghanistan as we think it is. But it’s just part of the private space of any family that normally we don’t see in a film made by outsiders.

RS: And we should point out this film, Midnight Traveler, was not shot on a Hollywood set, or under great controls. This is a family trying to survive, and yet they’re filming their journey, because they think it has larger significance, or—well, tell us why they filmed it.

EM: I think that’s right, I think that they thought it had larger significance. I think that also they had nothing to do. You know, when you take people who are used to working, and then you drop them in a camp and you tell them they can’t work, and they need to just live here for a year in a small, cramped room with a bunch of other families right on top of them, they can go stir crazy. And so having a project that they could involve their daughters in, and something that they felt was meaningful—it gave them some meaning in their life at a time when, you know, all of the circumstances were colluding to take meaning away from them.

RS: So without spoiling the, you know, people going to the film and finding out the end of the storyline on their own after they witness what is essentially a work of art, basically, in the best sense, why don’t you just sketch out what happens as they then move on to their second country, and how–and take us to the end of the story. We have just some time to do that.

EM: Well, like I said, they traveled the Balkan smuggling route. So for people who are familiar with the various routes that people take from Central Asia to Europe, you know, it’s common to get to Turkey, and then some people take boats to Greece or to Italy. The Balkan route is a land route that goes through Bulgaria and Serbia, and then some people go through Croatia or Romania, or there’s a few different ways that people travel. And the danger in the Balkan route is that there’s quite a lot of borders to cross, with quite a lot of unfriendly policing of those borders. And it’s a notoriously dangerous route. Of course, we’ve all seen images of people drowning in overcrowded boats crossing the Mediterranean, so the boats are also a very dangerous route.

So there wasn’t a great option either way, you know; neither choice was good. So they are making their way along that route, but it’s not by any means an easy journey. It’s not an uninterrupted journey. You know, they end up in positions where they’re arrested, where their lives are threatened, or they’re attacked, you know. So there’s quite a lot of harrowing things that no one would want to happen to their family that do happen to this family. And like I said, it follows them over several years, as they’re attempting to get somewhere and have asylum and have a final, you know, settling of their life somewhere that they can live long term. And they still don’t have that; they still don’t have any answer about where they’re going to be living long term.

RS: So where are they now? When this film opened in New York, did you get word to them, and where did the word go?

EM: They’re in Germany now. And they’re, they have a pending case. So they’re waiting.

RS: But they’re not allowed to leave the particular state in Germany that they’re in, or travel; at least I saw that somewhere.

EM: They, when they first arrived, they had very limited travel; it’s been sort of slowly opening up as their case moves through the system. They were able to come to the Berlinale. So after the Sundance premiere, the film went to Berlin for the Berlinale, and the whole family was able to come to the Berlinale and participate in Q&As and see the film. And now they’re working on, you know, getting the ability to do more travel within Europe. There’s not any likelihood, I don’t think, that they would be in a position to come to the United States anytime soon, so—

RS: Why is that?

EM: Well, this is true of any asylum seeker anywhere–generally, while your case is pending, you have to stay in the country where you’re applying for asylum. Germany is part of the Schengen zone of Europe, so there’s maybe a little more freedom within Europe. But you know, even in America, if you are applying for asylum, it’ll be very difficult for you to get permission to, say, leave and go to Japan. And so they don’t have passports; you know, they don’t have legal status in Germany. It would be very difficult for them on their Afghan passports right now, you know, as asylum seekers, to be given a visa to enter the U.S.

RS: But again, and I don’t want to over-politicize this, but the fact is we are still—U.S. government, military—we’re still in Afghanistan because we want, ostensibly, to expand freedom; it’s also to prevent attacks coming from Afghanistan. But here you have a director, Hassan Fazili, who has standing as an artist, right. And he makes a really important, complex movie about the result of all of the things that have happened in Afghanistan, and deepens our understanding. And you mean you can’t even get him invited to a screening? He’s a non-person because his passport is from Afghanistan?

EM: Well, yeah. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get a visa [Laughs] to come to the United States on an Afghan passport. It’s not easy. And then if you add to that the person is known to be looking for asylum in another country, it makes it very difficult to get permission from the United States government. Because of course, their view is that the person is not likely to return. Or, you know, they’re not likely to leave the country. But I think in any case, it’s, yes, it’s complicated.

RS: But don’t we have exemption, don’t we have a consideration for political refugees and human rights?

SK: I think–this is not a question that I think Emelie and I can really answer properly. So I think we’d like to move on.

RS: OK. So let me just say, as a little editorializing, it is one of the contradictions in our immigration policy. Because, you know, we have periodically admitted people we say are political refugees, and we make it easier. And that seems to have been tightened substantially. And so I—

EM: Yeah. But it’s, you know, it’s not—it’s also an issue of being able to leave the country that they’re in, like I said, so they would be forfeiting their case in Germany. So it wouldn’t be you know, it wouldn’t be something that they or their immigration attorneys would want them to do.

RS: OK. So let me ask you one last, but big question; take your time to answer it, because you’re both producers. So if you were producing this podcast, this radio program, what do you think we should cover about this film before we sign off here? The film is Midnight Traveler. I’m asking that question in the spirit of trying to get people to go watch it. Because any work of art, you know, you can discuss it, but actually the proof is in the pudding. And you know, people should go see this, because it raises a whole range of really important questions about human existence. Not just political, obviously not just political questions, but who are we, and what are our needs, and how do we relate to our family and our times. So you know, what do you think is—I mean, make the case for why this film you produced is so important.

EM: Well, so I like I said, I’m also the editor. So I spent, you know, quite a long time sitting with this footage and sitting with what the story was going to be. And I really think that the strength of the film is in its ability to allow us to just be with this family, through moments of joy and humor, as well as through moments that are quite harrowing. To be in a story that at its heart is really kind of a family drama more than it is a story about, you know, the refugee crisis, as people like to call it. And surrounding this family, there are broader issues. But so many films, and so much media, invites us to look at them first as refugees.

And then second, maybe if we think about it, to ponder what it’s like to be in their shoes, or what their life is like, or why they are where they are. And you know, this is a film that sets the refugee question, in a sense, just on the periphery. You know, we understand what kind of story it is, but really at its heart, this is the story of a family. And it’s by that shift in perspective, like Su said at the beginning, that I think the film has real strength.

RS: Yeah, and the two points really are not inconsistent. I mean, they are part of a category called refugees. But the film is a reminder that we’re talking basically about human existence, the struggle for meaning in life, survival, family, right. And that these are universal themes. And being a refugee happens to heighten them in certain ways and put them at risk in certain ways. But what you’re really saying is that this is a compelling story about a family caught up in history, but it’s about this family, and how they go about the business of taking care of each other and surviving under a terrible situation.

EM: That’s correct.

RS: Good. I’m glad we got that. Anything else we should add before we wrap this up?

SK: I just want to make a couple of corrections. So the film is actually–it was directed by Hassan Fazili, but it’s a film by Hassan Fazili and Emelie Mahdavian. It’s a very minor—but it’s a, you know, how the film is presented. Also, Emily’s credit is producer, writer, and editor.

RS: OK. And so I didn’t mean to take away that credit. So why don’t we just end, then, by telling me more—I am intrigued by how this film got to be made. And I think it’s a great story in itself. So can you just give me a little bit more about your role in that, Emelie?

EM: Yeah, sure. I mean, the thing that people keep saying to us, once they hear about how the film was made, is that there’s always a film about how the film was made in a film like this. Because obviously, the logistics were pretty complicated. And then the logistics of the creative work were very complicated. So you know, like I said, I was on from the beginning. So I, in the beginning, was working with them on pretty basic things like arranging contacts to get the footage safe, to get it shipped to me in the United States. So in each country, I would find somebody who could meet them, and copy the footage from them, and get it to me. And then, on the U.S. side, I was working simultaneously on, you know, the fundraising and the grant writing, and all of that, and then also on the editing. So I was poring through what was quite a lot of footage, several hundred hours, and trying to begin assembling it into a story that could, you know, that could work for audiences, you know, at a global scale, so audiences from many cultures. And that meant, you know, collaborating from a distance in many cases. And it meant that often, I was simultaneously here in the U.S. working on editing and working on fundraising or producing work. And then also, you know, talking to them while they were on this journey, and coordinating with them, and trying to make creative decisions together from a distance.

I did spend a month with them in Serbia working together in person, but when they were on the move, it was very difficult to ever meet up with them. So it was a very mobile-phone intensive production, not just in the sense that it was shot on mobile phones, but also in the sense that we were constantly in contact through various apps on the mobile phone. And as many people know, refugees use those phones also as mapping systems, as you know, means of sort of lifelines to the outside world. So the phone itself ended up being a massive part of the production, even behind the scenes.

RS: And how long was that, your involvement with it? How long a time?

EM: Well, we started the film in April of 2016. So until now; I’m still working. [Laughs]

RS: OK, well, I just do want to stress one thing. All during that time–you make it sound a little more mechanical than it is–you really had to be worried whether these people are going to survive. I mean, they were in—

EM: Absolutely.

RS: And you were documenting their risk.

EM: Yeah, and I mean, I was really very worried from where I was sitting in the United States. Because it felt like there was not much I could probably do, you know; I never knew what they were going to encounter. And I never knew what kind of needs they would have, and whether I would be able to help them or not. And I was very concerned to make sure that it was clear to them that I wanted them not to put themselves in risk for the sake of the film. Unfortunately, the migrant route is a risky thing to be on, and there was not a lot that they often could do to protect themselves or keep themselves out of risky situations. So the film ends up documenting those. And it was, it was very difficult to be at a distance. Sometimes there was something I could do to try to help. Sometimes they would ask me questions that I wasn’t comfortable answering, because I didn’t know what the safer choice was, and I didn’t want to be responsible for a bad decision. And that certainly weighed on me.

RS: And I just want to indulge myself by trying to patch over this tension between the personal and the political. This migrant route, in their case, is not one that they did as a matter of choice. It was forced upon them by a death threat that was very serious. And so the key takeaway for me about the whole refugee crisis is that this is not a choice issue for most people called refugees. This is necessity, survival. And your movie is really—Midnight Traveler, opening around the country—it’s really about, you know, as I say, I keep getting back to that quote: “My family, like leaves ripped away from a tree in a storm, was taken from our land and thrown in every direction.” It does compel a sympathy for people called refugees. They didn’t make the decision to tear themselves off the tree; events, politics, world reality, tore them off that tree. And your movie is really about the human beings that then try to survive under incredibly risky, dangerous circumstance. So is that a fair summary?

EM: Yeah. I mean, there’s—this might be kind of a technical point, but I think it’s a useful one for the conversation. Which is that a person is not actually a refugee until they’re given refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, which vets people. So there are people, there are migrants who are people who are seeking asylum or refugee status, who are moving for various reasons from country to country. There are refugees, which are people who have been vetted and who are seeking a new place to live. And there are asylum seekers, which are people who are already on the soil of a new country, asking for protection from being forced to return to something that they say is an unsafe situation. So in the course of our film, our family begins as would-be refugees in Tajikistan, and they’re denied access to the refugee system, which forces them to become migrants. And currently, they’re asylum-seekers. So they have been attempting to use all sorts of means of accessing safety. And in the course of that, they’re actually accessing different legal and bureaucratic systems. And there’s technically different words for each of those.

RS: OK, got it. But they are full human beings, and we should be concerned about them. That’s it for this edition of “Scheer Intelligence.” We’ve been broadcasting this from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where Victor Figueroa is the engineer here. Our producer for “Scheer Intelligence” is Joshua Scheer, and we’ll see you next week with another edition.

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