Doc Talk | Peter Keough

Doc Talk: Fleeing the Taliban, connecting with Shirley Clarke, witch hunting

A scene from “Häxan”
A scene from “Häxan”

Should a journalist put himself and his family in mortal danger to report the truth? In 2015 Hassan Fazili chose to take that risk and make a documentary for Afghan television about a Taliban commander who was seeking peace. Then the Taliban executed the subject of his film. One of Fazili’s friends and a recent Taliban convert warned him that he was on the jihadist group’s hit list. So Fazili, his filmmaker wife, Fatima, and their two young daughters, Nargis and Zahra, packed up everything they could carry and fled, bringing along three iPhones to record what turned out to be a 3,500-mile hegira across some of the most perilous borders in the world.

In his documentary “Midnight Traveler,” Fazili and editor Emelie Mahdavian have pared that footage down into a handheld, as-it-happened documentary that combines the intensity and terror of a found-footage horror movie with the intimacy and suspense of real-life drama.


It begins with one of the daughters saying in a disarmingly innocent voice-over that “this is a journey to the edge of hell.” The edge of hell takes them from Afghanistan to Tajikistan, from Tajikistan back into Afghanistan, and then into Iran, from Iran to Turkey, from Turkey to Bulgaria, and on and on as they try to reach the hoped-for safety of somewhere in the European Union.

They become part of the faceless multitudes seeking safety, dodging border guards, sleeping in forests, walking for days. They sleep in the open or in shelters in varying stages of destitution and squalor. Ugly boils erupt on the girls’ skin after a night in a safe house, apparently from bedbugs. There are human parasites, too, like the smuggler who threatens to kidnap Fazili’s daughters if he isn’t paid more money. And in Bulgaria, they are attacked by nationalist gangs. “We’ve come to a place as bad as our own country,” says Fatima. But the journey has hardly begun. In Serbia and Hungary they spend months languishing behind barbed wire, detained in refugee camps.


Throughout it all, the children remain irrepressible. “I love that the water comes up like this!” says Nargis, standing on the shore of the Bosporus. “It’s like the water is angry!” After a long night in which Zahra is missing and desperately searched for (Fazili refuses to film this, fearing he will find her dead), she laughs as she chases after wispy floating seeds.

Fazili and his family are now in Germany still awaiting a decision on their request for asylum. I hope if his film is nominated for a best documentary Oscar that he and his family will be allowed to enter the United States to attend the Academy Awards ceremony.

“Midnight Traveler” can be seen at the Kendall Square Cinema beginning on Oct 18.

Connection made, Jason portrayed

For the centennial of Shirley Clarke’s birth the Criterion Channel will present a program of shorts and features by the pathbreaking avant-garde filmmaker, who combined jazz, dance, poetry, Abstract Expressionism, hipster grunge, and a self-reflexive direct cinema to create a body of work that is unique, radical, and visionary.

Among the features are “The Connection” (1961). Based on a 1959 Jack Gelber play, the film claims at the outset to be found footage of a documentary about heroin addicts waiting in a dive apartment for the arrival of the dealer of the title. In hopes of making a connection with the junkies and their demi-monde, the director tries to manipulate the situation, but is instead goaded by his subjects who insist he must sample the heroin himself.


Clarke drops the complex, reflective artifice of “The Connection” for the unsparing, inquisitorial, but equally self-incriminating “Portrait of Jason” (1967). In it the gay African-American of the title lounges in a Chelsea Hotel penthouse, relating outlandish tales about his past as a hustler, houseboy, cabaret performer, bon vivant, and skid row derelict. Elegant, hilarious, full of self-loathing, he drinks and chain smokes and grows increasingly inebriated and emotional, though he always falls back on an insouciant, self-dramatizing irony.

He is the only person on the screen, but outside the frame Clarke and a friend can be heard laughing and making comments. Their remarks become increasingly accusatory — apparently there is some negative history between them and Jason — and even abusive. They try to penetrate his façade, but in so doing, they reveal more about those behind the camera than the subject in front of it.

Witch hunt

A pseudo-scientific history and analysis of the witch phenomenon from medieval times to the modern day, Benjamin Christensen’s sui generis silent documentary “Häxan” (1922) takes a pedantic, sometimes voyeuristic approach in its reenactments of grave-robbing, black masses, possessed nuns, black magic, mass hysteria, and the ruthless absurdities of the Inquisition.

Some of the vignettes are creepy and comical, like one with two pig demons guarding a church door while cat demons go about their business of desecrating the altar. Others are more disturbing, like the interrogation of a hapless old woman that resembles scenes from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928). Its combination of archness and earnestness veers from the “ecstatic truth” of Werner Herzog to the illuminating ineptitude of Ed Wood’s “Glen or Glenda” (1953). More than a cinematic curio, it is the prototype for a variety of future genres and with a message that is still relevant today.


“Häxan” will be available on DVD and Blu-ray for $39.95 from the Criterion Collection on Oct. 15.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.