CAST: Amin Nawabi, Daniel Karimyar, Fardin Mijdzadeh
RUNNING TIME: 90 mins
BASICALLY…: Amin Nawabi recounts his traumatic migration from Afghanistan to Denmark as a young man…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
When told with raw authenticity, and without syrupy over-sentiment, the story of the modern-day refugee can make for particularly powerful storytelling, so long as they have the necessary tools for the job. Like last year’s excellent Limbo, which used sharp deadpan comedy to highlight the frustration of the bureaucratic asylum system, filmmaker Jonas Pohur Rasmussen’s powerful docu-drama Flee incorporates rough sketch-like animation to (literally) illustrate an all-too-common migration trauma, not only that of making the harrowing journey towards a brighter future from what used to be called home, but living with the overwhelming guilt and fear of what one has to do in order to even have a chance.
Rasmussen’s film focuses on a man called “Amin Nawabi” – neither his real name nor his likeness, for the movie explicitly states that it has changed such details to protect the real-life figures from possible retribution – who the filmmaker once knew from their school days. “Amin” has agreed to tell his own story on-camera to Rasmussen for the first time, beginning when he is a young boy living with his family in Kabul, Afghanistan; he’s like most other boys his age, except for his outgoing personality (he runs around wearing one of his sister’s dresses while listening to A-ha’s “Take On Me” on cassette) and secret adoration for action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, both of which mark the early signs of his gay identity. However, when the Mujahideen sweeps the country following the crumbling of the Soviet government, Amin and his family are forced to flee towards a tiny apartment in suburban Moscow, where the harsh living conditions prompt them to rely on thuggish human traffickers to smuggle into other countries across Europe. A teenage Amin eventually ends up alone in Denmark, where he grows more comfortably into a gay adult and is about to get married to his long-term boyfriend Kaspar, but the trauma and guilt of his troublesome earlier years is what drives his desire to finally tell the world his truth.
Although “Amin” may be a pseudonym, his story is instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever read about or even experienced the refugee experience, and Flee does not skip around the darker details of this person’s tough-to-stomach journey. The sharp and densely detailed animation shows the ruthlessness of his situation as he experiences hardships almost everywhere he is forced to go, from bullying officers of the corrupt Russian police force, to leaking migrant ships in the middle of a storm on the Baltic Sea, and every time you feel the emotional impact on this young man as it clearly affects him deeply, no matter how minor or insignificant the incident is to his overall story (one disturbing detail is him and his older brother failing to stop a woman from being raped by Russian officers, after they themselves were accosted for no good reason). Whoever “Amin” may be in real life, he is truly brave for sharing his story in such honest and unflinching fashion, which is told with just as much passion and tenderness by Rasmussen.
The filmmaker is considerable in choosing which part of his subject’s story to exemplify through the wondrous animation, and what to leave more open to horrific imagination, such as real-life footage of an Estonian migrant holding facility being substituted over the entire section where Amin narrates his experiences there after a failed migration attempt. Rasmussen’s blend of animated drama and real documentary footage shows the sharp parallels between what is real and what might be intentionally dramatized, for it is presented in a way that constantly reminds you of the actual atrocities that people like the semi-fictional Amin have to go through, which understandably leave them in a state of trauma and endless paranoia. Even in the film’s lighter moments, such as Amin becoming more and more comfortable with his sexuality, there is still a lingering fear of his own family – who have likewise been scattered across Europe due to the circumstances – not accepting him for who he truly is after all this time apart; it is only through the tight pacing that Rasmussen places upon his film that certain things such as this are treated with great respect and even a quietly uplifting sensibility.
It is undoubtedly moving, and boasting such a heart-pounding animation style that accentuates the constant state of fear and uncertainty in which our main character constantly finds himself. By the end, you’re almost exhausted from the onslaught of effective drama being flung towards you, but it is such an engaging story that is told with great care and passion that you’re more than willing to see it through to its final few frames of animation. For anyone who’s ever gone through similar circumstances, or is passionate about the cause of helping those from war-torn countries seek shelter and asylum, Flee is one you should be running straight towards.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Flee is a powerful docu-drama that effectively tells an all-too common story of migration with warm humanity as well as a no-holes-barred account of how rough and dark the process can be, accompanied by some sharp hand-drawn animation that adds a layer of anonymity and universality to the story.