DOXA – Human spirit on screen

Look for a home? Longing to belong? The South Asian program of films explores the complications of Asian life throughout the world.

The DOXA Film Festival has been bringing some of the best documentaries to town for 18 years now, and the 2019 line up is no exception. The films and programs selected for this year’s festival are very much in keeping with the DOXA mission to “support a better understanding of the complexity of our times through engaging the public in documentary media as an art form.” One of the engaging documentaries screening this year is Midnight Traveler, and one of the more exciting special programs is Longing and Belonging.

DOXA is happening from May 2 to 12 in theatres all over Vancouver.

A family on the run

Midnight Traveler is a film that follows Hassan Fazili, his wife and two young daughters as they travel from Tajikistan to Afghanistan with a Taliban bounty on his head. The young family goes on a sometimes harrowing journey through countries like Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Serbia. Fazili and his family used a cell phone to film their journey to safety, putting an intensely personal perspective on the political issue of refugees seeking asylum.

Emelie Mahdavian, who served as co-producer, writer and editor of Midnight Traveler talks about how the film came to be and about the unique challenges that came with making this film.

“The story emerged naturally out of the terrible situation that the Fazili family, who are filmmakers, found themselves in. Nonetheless, at the outset, none of us fully understood the duration of the journey the family was embarking upon,” says Mahdavian. “Over the course of the two years of shooting the film, his daughters grew up, he and his wife Fatima were both evolving in their hopes and fears, and every member of the Fazili family participated in shooting some element of the film. Much of the insider perspective and humanity of the film emerges as a consequence of this multi-perspective approach.”

Mahdavian got involved with the project since she knew the Fazili family from previous work. She programmed a short film called Mr. Fazili’s Wife in the Davis Feminist Film Festival. Originally, she and others started a letter writing campaign on behalf of the Fazili family, trying to avoid the journey that became Midnight Traveler altogether, but it was not meant to be. After this difficulty, Mahdavian was determined to help out Hassan and his family in any way she could.

“When their situation deteriorated, I agreed to help the Fazili family in documenting their journey,” she says. “We did not know what the end product would be at that stage, but we felt it was worth capturing and preserving. So, from day one of the filmmaking journey, I was there to provide support and collaborate with Hassan to tell his family’s story.”

The process of getting the footage and then getting it to the United States for processing and editing is in itself a tale of human determination. Mahdavian explains how the footage was made into Midnight Traveler.

Hassan was unable to travel with his laptop, so he captured the footage on SD cards that he guarded until Mahdavian was able to arrange local contacts in each country to copy and ship the original footage to the US. Once she had the footage, Hassan wiped his SD cards and shot new material. But it was only the first challenge to get the footage safely to the post-production facilities. Oher challenges lay ahead in making the footage into a movie.

“Fortunately, we had an incredible team in sound and color that took the footage from raw mobile phone material to something that felt cinematic and professional,” says Mahdavian.


Along with Midnight Traveler, visitors to the DOXA Film Festival can also enjoy some amazing South Asian film and videos from the 1990s that have been selected to play in the Longing and Belonging Program. The curator of this program, Zool Suleman, who is also co-founder and editor of South Asian art and literature magazine Rungh, approached DOXA and got the program and its films and videos to be part of this year’s festival.

“The program at DOXA is part of Rungh’s ongoing project to make visible the invisible cultural histories of racialized groups in Canada,” says Suleman.

Still from Surviving Sabu, 1998.

When asked about the program’s name, Suleman talks about the “racialized migrants, and those born of such communities in Canada, that often struggle with understanding “there” (longing), while “living here “ (belonging).

“Multiculturalism does not “fix” these issues, but often exacerbates them,” says Suleman.

The program focuses on the 1990s because it was a time of significant cultural production in the South Asian community in Canada. When asked what he hopes the audiences of the Longing and Belonging program takes from the films and videos they watch, Suleman says: “I hope that they leave wanting to know more about what they see. The Longing and Belonging program is just a small piece of what was taking place in the 1990s. Many of the topics from that time, continue to influence films which are made today.”

Similarly, Mahdavian hopes that the audience of Midnight Traveler feels they have had a chance to see the journey of a refugee through new eyes.

“The topic is often in the news, but I don’t think we often get beyond the common black-and-white depictions of the situation. With this family, we get a chance to see the whole experience through insider eyes,” says Mahdavian.

The human spirit is on display in these films and programs and available to the public, thanks to the DOXA Film Festival.

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