Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym), a 36-year-old high-achieving academic, grapples with a painful secret he has kept hidden for 20 years, one that threatens to derail the life he has built for himself and his soon-to-be husband. Recounted to director Jonas Poher Rasmussen – his close friend and high-school classmate – mostly through animation to protect his identity, Amin tells for the first time the story of his extraordinary journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan. Through heartfelt interviews between Jonas and Amin, Flee tells an unforgettable story of self-discovery. It shows how we can only carve out a future by confronting the past and recognises that you can only find the true meaning of home when you stop fleeing from who you are.
One of the most mesmerising animated features in recent times, Flee uniquely documents an Afghan refugee’s harrowing attempts to find asylum abroad, his journey anything but straightforward. Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen finds remarkable ways to unearth the memories of his protagonist, Amin, congealing them into something akin to a classic suspense tale, yet one still steeped in the credibility of a documentary. A 2020 Cannes Label selection, Flee waited half a year to have its full premiere in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was one of the most admired films at the whole event.
One of this film’s many great flourishes comes in the opening minutes, as Amin (all the main characters have pseudonyms to protect their anonymity) lies down on a plush couch and prepares to narrate his impressive tale to Rasmussen. Then, just as we in the audience are similarly settling down, a film clapperboard hovers in the corner of the frame, the two main characters giggle and then the scene. And this is all rendered in hand-drawn animation, with the slanted lines and imperfections of a sketch. What reality are we in here? Subjective reality and the nature of our perceptions are in fact one of this film’s key concerns.
The masterstroke of using animation to literally illustrate Amin’s story is that its colourful splendour and spatial exaggerations bring us closer to the feeling of actually ‘accessing’ memory, a bit like the colour-coded levels of reality in Christopher Nolan’s work.
Unlike many migrant narratives in contemporary film, Flee takes place at an earlier point in time – the latter stages of the Afghan-Soviet War in the late 1980s – where escaping had become civilians’ only option. The affinity with the modern refugee crisis is nonetheless obvious. In his early teens, Amin initially decamped from Afghanistan, along with his frail mother and three older siblings, to Russia, the only country that would take them. Yet this was merely a temporary solution, with their Russian visas expiring and the country descending into turmoil after the fall of communism. The bulk of the film follows Amin’s increasingly hapless and Kafkaesque attempts to settle in a more secure Western European country. Yet a person is not solely defined by their political status, and a key thread in this story is Amin’s burgeoning queer sexuality; we see his struggles to conceal this from his family, and how he explores his urges in private and with people of his own age.
The animation, provided by Copenhagen-based Sun Creature Studio, doesn’t distance us from the visceral events unfolding. The initial scenes around early 1980s Kabul are a feast of colour and lush detail, all self-referentially set to the music of a-ha’s Take On Me which, of course, has a famous animated music video. Later, the labyrinthine streets of Saint Petersburg look like a mass riot has taken place in them every day, and there’s a seaborne sequence with an enormous passenger vessel that is awe-inspiringly atmospheric.
The impetus for the film came from the director and protagonist’s friendship – they met at high school, and Rasmussen was always curious for Amin to relate exactly how he ended up in Denmark. Most of us have a close friend whose life we know would make a wonderful subject for a film. This time, Rasmussen actually went and made that hypothetical movie, and it is a gift.
David Katz, Cineuropa
Flee is a co-production between Denmark, France, Sweden and Norway. It was produced by Final Cut for Real, in cooperation with other production companies Sun Creature, Vivement Lundi, Most Film, Mer Film, Left Handed Films and Vice Studios. International sales are handled by Cinephil.