Handheld by Sheer Necessity: Midnight Traveler

By Mukwae Wabei Siyolwe
Posted on July 26, 2019

Midnight Traveler was shot entirely on three cell phones out of sheer necessity. An autoethnographic film about a family in flight, the three-year journey follows filmmakers Hassan Fazili, Fatima Hussaini, and their two girls Zahra and Nargis fleeing Afghanistan, attempting to seek asylum in Germany because of a death bounty on Hassan. Due to its content, Midnight Traveler could not have been shot with a standard camera and is a breakthrough film on many levels, functioning as a case study on how documentaries are responding to the use of handheld devices 

Emelie Mahdavian, producer, writer, and editor of Midnight Traveler, says, “Don’t be fooled because it’s not a shortcut shooting on mobile, and it didn’t cost less because we had technical challenges editing in post." The filmmakers of Midnight Traveler had no Moment portrait lens, Freefly Movi Gimbal, Zoom recorder, Sennheiser shotgun microphone, or boom pole and they certainly couldn’t lock down the exposure for every shot. 

This film had no pre-production or recce and they were shooting primarily outdoors at night with an onboard recorder under very stressful conditions, which included shooting and traveling with small children. Midnight Traveler post-production supervising producer Su Kim understood these challenges and put together a post crew that could maximize the impact of mobile production by filling in the missing links in post-production. Emelie Mahdavian credits Su Kim and her post-production team with getting this film through to completion against all odds by successfully dealing with the color correction to, troubleshooting with the sound and figuring out how to resolve the real problem of converting fifty-nine different frame rates because mobile phones don’t hold stable frame rates. 

The combined skill-set of the post-production team managed to reconcile the above mentioned missing links and many of the schematic rules of making a documentary film were transfigured because of the mobile phone shooting format. Innovation allowed the film to the surface. Mahdavian says, “What you saved in production for not having a DP inflated the budget in post-production and as producers we still had to think about meeting the demands of the consumer with a broadcast quality finish. We also had to consider the impact this film would have on the careers of the artists.”

ITVS came on board for Midnight Traveler at a crucial time in terms of financing, says producer Mahdavian. “With ITVS's vote of confidence, the project gained momentum and we were able to complete our funding budget. We also felt that public television would be the best way for a film like this to reach a wide, diverse American audience. So working with ITVS, and POV, we have partners that can ensure the film goes out to the widest possible American broadcast audience.” 

This was a great concern for the filmmakers and they were able to tell a story despite the constraints because they embraced obstacles in innovative ways. 


Mukwae Wabei Siyolwe is a hybrid documentary filmmaker, cultural curator and learning strategist who uses visual and performance arts media as vehicles for social transformation through her company global posse productions. 

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