A remarkable portrayal of perseverance in the face of torment, Flee gives us a rare glimpse into the life of a refugee and the consequences of war we seldom see explored. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s documentary about an Afghan refugee who embarked to Denmark in the 1980s is a timely reminder of the humanity people seem to forget of when they think about Afghanistan–a country that’s been war-torn for decades, where refugees are still asking to be seen and stories like this continue to happen.
Amin Nawabi is a pseudonym for Rasmussen’s subject, a long-time friend that he met as a teenager in Denmark. For the sake of safety, Amin’s story demands privacy, but it also demands your attention. It’s for this reason that Rasmussen decides to use rotoscope animation for their interview, where live-action shots are drawn over in post-production, allowing Nawabi’s face to be changed and guaranteeing his privacy. You’d think the animation might separate us from the subject, but art director Jess Nicholls manages to somehow bring us closer to Amin, even if we might not know his true face. Nicholls keeps the jittering, the unsure glances off to the side when Amin’s confidence is low, and even the false beginning where Amin insists on talking a bit before going through with the interview.
Interwoven with this rotoscoped animation are stories of Amin’s journey, told in vibrant color, while the periods he wasn’t there for, and the moments that aren’t so vivid or easy to remember, are shown in less-detailed sketches of greys and whites. Only occasionally do we leave this animated world for the real one, when live-action archival footage comes in to establish the various points in time Amin takes us through. Put these things together and Flee provides one of the most unique viewing experiences I’ve ever had, giving Amin’s harrowing narrative a chance to shine in ways it may not have been able to without.
Until recording this interview, Amin told people the same story. That his entire family was killed in Afghanistan, and he fleed to Denmark on his own as a minor to escape the violence. This, we eventually learn, is a lie he was instructed to tell by the human traffickers that successfully got him out of harm’s way. That lie saved his life, and he’s stuck with it ever since, not even daring to tell his loving partner, Kasper, who he is house-hunting with at the time the interview takes place. Only once did he ever tell someone the truth before Flee, an ex-boyfriend who immediately threatened to tell the authorities that the reason for his asylum was false. You might see, then, why he goes by a pseudonym and why Rasmussen uses animation to hide his identity.
The identity of the subject notwithstanding, it’s the truth of Amin’s journey and how it affected him that makes Flee so powerful. His father disappeared in Afghanistan when he was taken by the mujahideen, a group of extremist soldiers once backed by the United States; when those same soldiers started to overtake the capital of Kabul, where he lived, Amin and his family escaped to Moscow, where they faced a corrupt system in a post-Soviet Russia; his sisters almost died when they tried to get to Sweden, where Amin’s brother lived, when human traffickers stuffed them into a shipping container with tens of other refugees and were left to suffocate; he and his mother spent all of their money looking for a safer way to join his sisters, only to be stuck on a sinking ship and saved by people who would eventually ship them back to Russia. When Amin finally got out, by saving even more money and trusting a more expensive trafficker, his mother couldn’t go and he ended up not in Sweden, with his family, but in Denmark. All the while, as he and his family experience traumatic events and end up being split apart, Amin is internally struggling to understand his attraction to the same sex, isolating himself even further.
Even though I am not Afghan, nor a refugee, I feel connected to Amin through the diaspora, and the shame we had for our queerness. The experience of growing up afraid that you know you’re different, a kind of different your traditional, Muslim family isn’t likely to understand. Our stories are not at all the same, but pieces of our experience are–like having crushes on male celebrities, obviously on display with posters in our rooms, and wishing there was a cure for the homosexuality that isolated us even more than we already felt. Through these connections, Amin’s story hit home closer than any other film I’ve watched this year.
For everything it does, Flee is a standout film and a contender for an Oscar, there is no doubt.
Rasmussen does Amin a great justice by allowing him the platform to tell his story, however altered his identity might be. And executive producers Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are helping by adding their names and giving this project more clout than it would have had without them. But it would be a great injustice to all those people involved to write about, think or promote this film without also talking about Afghanistan and the refugees that continue to need our help today.
Of all the reviews of this film I have read, mostly by white males, not one of them dared to talk about why Flee is so timely. Though Amin’s story begins in 1989 with the fall of Kabul to the mujahideen during the Civil War, Kabul just fell again this year, to the Taliban after the United States finally left. Again, thousands flocked from Afghanistan as military support withdrew, leaving citizens to find their own way to safe shores, citizens who might face the same torment audiences will have just watched in Flee. Women’s rights are threatened as the Taliban restructures the government and takes away what they’ve built for themselves, and a humanitarian crisis is at our doorsteps. It is one thing to say you love this film and that it’s worth the watch, but it’s another entirely to support every part of it including the victims of war still coming from Afghanistan. To watch Flee, to feel touched by it, but not promote ways to help Afghanistan and its people, is to perpetuate the problem of ignoring the news coming out of the Middle East because it makes you uncomfortable unless you benefit from it.
NEON will release Flee only in theaters on December 3.
To readers who would like to help current Afghan refugees, check out the organizations and websites below for different ways you can make a difference.