• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:December 27, 2021

Flee: Life on the Run

The European Union is currently divided between member states that have done their best to help refugees and those that have refused to do their part. In spite of many problems concerning integration, the countries that have historically accepted refugees offer success stories. This lauded animated documentary is an example of that, a film with the potential to make those who doubt see the individual behind racist caricatures. By focusing on one great story you may not get the full picture, but it’s a way of preventing us from seeing foreigners as a faceless mass.

About to marry his boyfriend
On the surface, life is good for Amin Nawabi. He’s 36 years old, has a good job and a Princeton degree, and he’s about to marry his boyfriend Kasper. But when his long-time friend, filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen, asks him if he would be interested in talking about his past for a project, Amin not only agrees but tells Jonas that he feels a need to do it. The reason is that he’s kept things bottled up inside for so long, secrets that he hasn’t told Kasper or anyone else. Amin originally came to Denmark as a refugee from Afghanistan when he was a teenager. The official story was that he had no family, but that wasn’t true.

As we’re transported back in time to Kabul in the late 1980s, we learn Amin’s background, a time when he grew up knowing that he was different, a happy childhood that ended with the Mujahideen kidnapping his father.

Amin could remain anonymous
Rasmussen was originally invited to a workshop between animators and filmmakers, which is where he realized that Amin’s story might be best served by telling it as an animated documentary. Not only would it help to illustrate the central story of Amin’s escape in a way that archival footage never could, but it also meant that Amin could remain anonymous (Amin Nawabi is not his real name) and thereby feel free to share things as openly as possible. There was a great predecessor; the Israeli film Waltz With Bashir (2008) took us to the 1982 Lebanon War in a way that a non-animated documentary couldn’t.

Flee does insert archival footage at times, showing us newscasts that take us to the time and place, but most of the film is animated, making Amin and his family’s escape to Moscow and then from Russia timeless. What they experience and the horrors we witness still happen every day. One particularly relevant and striking sequence takes place on the Baltic as Amin and many other refugees are transported by human traffickers on a barely seaworthy vessel and come across a huge ferry full of tourists. At first, they believe this is the happy end of their dangerous journey, but they are immediately informed, as tourists snap pictures, that authorities will take them back to where they came from. Shame is Amin’s primary emotion in that scene, and his inner life is an important theme throughout, as he struggles to keep his homosexuality secret. As a free man, Amin’s experiences as a refugee still affect him, preventing him from creating a home together with Kasper in a natural and comfortable way.

The film is bookended with Rasmussen interviewing Amin on a couch, as if he’s in therapy, and the effect is close to that; it’s a rich portrait of the man himself, not just a tragic and exciting story about the escape from Kabul. The most touching moment comes near the end of the film, as Amin finally tells his brother about his sexuality, and the filmmakers test our prejudices.

Visually speaking, the animation may look simple but it has a nice flow, painting a charming portrait of a childhood in Kabul and a dark, bitterly cold one of life as a refugee.

Flee 2021-Denmark-Sweden-Norway-France-Britain-U.S. Part Animated. 90 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Monica Hellstrøm, Signe Byrge Sørensen. Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Screenplay: Amin Nawabi, Jonas Poher Rasmussen.

Trivia: Original title: Flugt. Co-executive produced by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

European Film Awards: Best Documentary, Animated Film. 

Last word: “[We] tried some things out that didn’t feel right. At one point we did this test and it became a little toony. All the characters had big eyes and the line was very straight and somehow it became a little detached from the testimony. So we went back because we needed to get the authenticity we had in the real testimony and put that in the animation. We spent a lot of time taking things directly from the archive footage, drawing them and putting in it the animation, so it felt like we could go from animation to archival footage seamlessly and it would feel like part of the same world.” (Rasmussen, The Queer Review)



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