A deeply moving subject on the impacts of war atrocities and seeking refuge, Jonhas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary titled Flee is one of the most essential and powerful films of 2021. Very much echoing the style of Ari Folman’s 2008 masterwork, Waltz with Bashir, which merges documentary, history, and facts with animation, Flee further proves the endless possibility of what the documentary genre can do. A triumph of self-acceptance, hope, and survival, Flee is a deeply humanistic film of dignity and grace.
The aesthetics and tone of Flee are very similar to Waltz with Bashir, though more colorful and less muted, the textures are there in the vein of a more rotoscoped animation that also echoes Richard Linklater’s animated features, such as his 2001 masterpiece Waking Life and the 2005 A Scanner Darkly. In Flee, the interview of its subject, Amin Nwabbi (a pseudonym), chronicles his life as a young gay man living in Afghanistan who must seek refuge from war, the police, and the government, and who is also trying to run and make sense of his own feelings.
Amin is poignant onscreen (but animated), as if he’s being interviewed by a therapist, who reflects back on his childhood, his teenage years, all the way up to his years of becoming a young man. The narration by Amin is quite resonant, with each memory and flashback unfolding with shattering results. During a striking opening, Amin reflects back to his childhood in Kabul, Afghanistan in the 80s, as we hear A-Ha’s Take on Me playing, only for his father to be abducted and his brother to get drafted into the Afghan military to fight against the Soviet invasion–the family ends up fleeing Afghanistan to Moscow, and eventually other parts of the country, in hopes of escaping future bloodshed, only to find themselves constantly covering up their own tracks to further avoid deportation and being detained.
Sadly, Amin’s life is always on the run as we go on a harrowing journey with him and his family, always crossing borders, finding new places to live, and constantly being on the go. Amin also has to repress his sexuality due to the Middle East’s bigotry towards gay men, in which his sexuality ends up becoming another obstacle he has to deal with along with the horrible abuse and other life or death scenarios.
It’s heartbreaking to see young Amin being forced to relocate from different countries and even continents. There is even a point where he’s an unaccompanied minor that seeks refuge in Denmark. We follow his journey until his late 30s, when he is now a literature professor who is engaged to his long-time boyfriend. Amid has been in the closet for most of his life, and the way he shares his harrowing experiences in the film is nothing short of personal.
Filmmaker Rasmussen deserves huge kudos for delivering such a powerfully moving film that examines the horrors of the refugee lifestyle. So many of us are privileged in this society as many just squawk about “outsiders” entering their homeland, but if more watched a film like Flee, the more empathetic and understanding People can become. Amin describes in heartbreaking detail how his sister migrated into Sweden in a shipping container, where many other fellow migrants didn’t survive. Amin’s own journey into Sweden to reconnect with his sister is also met with hardships. Even if successful, Amin must once again alter his identity for his own personal safety.
There is a deep catharsis to Flee that makes it a remarkable feat. The film’s third chapter has Amin going into a gay bar for the first time after a close relative drops him off and tells him to “have fun” as he, for once, feels he can be his true self in a more welcoming society. During these moments, Daft Punk’s Veridis Quo beautifully plays in the background. It’s a reminder of just how much of a deeply moving film Flee really is. While the film has a lot of heartbreaking moments, Flee is a rewarding journey of human adversity that soon becomes a beautiful portrait of survival. You can even feel Rasmussen feeling relieved that Amin’s hardships have finally, for once, found a light at the end of the tunnel. All around, Flee is a heartbreaking and equally liberating saga, a film that manages to evoke a desperate life spent in uncertain limbo as Rasmussen delivers such luminous humanity to Amin’s heartbreaking story.