Producers: Monica Hellström and Signe Byrge Sørensen Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen Screenplay: Jonas Poher Rasmussen and “Amin Nawabi” Cast: “Amin Nawabi,” Jonas Poher Rasmussen Distributor: Neon
This Danish film is a perceptive, piercing examination of the immigrant experience in Europe, crystallizing a widespread phenomenon by focusing on a single individual. It also stands apart from most documentaries on the subject by being told through animation that varies between the flatly unexceptional and the wildly impressionistic.
Animation has been used to mediate harrowing stories before, of course, the most obvious example being Ari Folman’s 2008 “Waltz with Bashir,” a stunning account of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacres that followed. Jonas Poher Rasmussen follows that template to a certain extent, but he’s not relating his own story as Folman did, except incidentally; he’s providing the opportunity for “Amin Nawabi,” as he’s pseudonymously called, to tell his while protecting his identity against potential repercussions.
Amin is an Afghan refugee living in Denmark; Rasmussen befriended him when they were high school classmates. Amin was always reluctant to discuss his past, but now as an adult preparing to marry his partner Kasper and house-hunting with him while contemplating going to America for a post-doctoral offer at Princeton, he agreed to open up to his old friend, who recordrf their conversations, which he then molded into the screenplay for the film. Animation produced by Charlotte De La Gournerie and directed by Kenneth Ladekjær is employed to depict both those conversations and Amin’s recollections, the former resembling therapeutic sessions as Amin often lies on the floor as if speaking to a psychologist, and presented in flat, stiff images, and the latter in stylistically bold, shimmering visuals, occasionally punctuated by newsreel footage that provides historical context.
The overarching narrative is of the fate of Amin and his family, initially shown as living fairly comfortably in Kabul in the 1970s. Amin recalls running gleefully through the streets as a child, and flying kites and playing volleyball with his older brother. But things changed with the transition to a communist regime in 1979. His father, a member of the Afghan military, disappeared in government custody, and the situation of Amin, his mother and siblings grew more precarious, as did the fate of the Soviet-backed state. The opposition mujahedeen, supported by the United States, eventually overthrew the regime in 1992, leading to the Taliban takeover. Amin and his family fled the country in desperation, winding up in post-Soviet Russia, where the lawless conditions, combined with the possibility to a forced return to Afghanistan, prompted them to try to flee to the West.
But escape was extraordinarily complicated, and in this telling it becomes even more so by reason of not only the vagaries of Amin’s memories but the need for him to contemplate revealing distortions and outright fabrications he had to manufacture in order to get to Denmark and win permission to remain there. (He had told the truth to one other person earlier, only to find that it put him at risk.) There are uncertainties about the survival of the other members of his family, about how he managed to deal with acclimating to life in the West, and whether he believes it will ever be really possible for him to establish a home with Kasper.
As Amin tells the story, he shifts as he goes, replacing misinformation with the truth he has long repressed and refused to deal with. He recounts dealings with smugglers and horrifically failed escape attempts in which the indifference and outright hostility of supposed rescuers played important roles, as well as the suspicion about his story he had to overcome in order not to be deported from Denmark.
“Flee” is also about a different sort of struggle Amin had to contend with, the acceptance of his homosexuality, for which even a word did not exist in his native land. His preference for wearing one of his sisters’ dresses signaled his sexual identity early on, and there’s a touch of welcome humor in his coming to understand it through his reaction to a poster from a Jean Claude Van Damme movie, of all things. But though a connection with another refugee whose name he can’t even remember is a fond memory, Amin remained so guilt-ridden about his gayness that he asked a case worker for medicine to “cure” it. And while his final admission to those closest to him had a surprisingly positive result, a possible betrayal by a later lover confirmed his reticence about his past. So while primarily a tale of immigration, this is a “coming-out” story of another sort as well, and one that’s also complex.
Accompanying Amir through his through his efforts to confront the realities of his past and his concern about the future was clearly a deeply affecting experience for Rasmussen, and it’s one whose power he and his colleagues—the animators, art director Jess Nichols, editor Janus Billeskov Jansen and composer Uno Helmersson—manage to convey in sometimes stark, sometimes strangely beautiful cinematic terms. “Flee” is a film to be sought out for the compassionate understanding it evokes and invites us all to share.