Sundance 2021 Film Review: Flee ★★★★

Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s remarkable Flee world premiered at Sundance 2021, winning the festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary. As the film opens a caption tells us that this a true story and that some of the names have been changed to protect the subjects’ anonymity. In present day Copenhagen, Denmark we meet 36 year-old Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym) in a therapy session style interview with the filmmaker, a close friend of Amin’s since high school, who asks him to lie down and close his eyes.

As Amin’s memories begin to flood back to him we’re immersed in the sights and sounds of his childhood in 1980s Kabul, Afghanistan; the familiarity of A-ha’s Take On Me beats away on the soundtrack, as we see Amin sporting pink walkman headphones, and wearing his sisters’ clothes to freely run around his neighbourhood. A fall outside leaves him bloody kneed and running home to his mother who puts a bandaid on it and sends him back out to play. Next he’s up on the roof flying a kite with his brother and later, far more comfortably, sitting combing his sister’s hair. All of this is rendered in beautifully simple traditional 2D animation, overseen by Kenneth Ladekjær, which captures a sense of the cinematography one would expect from live-action film; there’s even an animated clapperboard that slates the first take. When Amin struggles to recall certain episodes, those hazy memories are rendered in less detailed black and white charcoal drawings. It’s visceral, and evocative, aided by the detailed sound design, edited by Edward Björner and mixed by Tormod Ringnes. The subtly and lightness of touch with which Rasmussen relays Amin’s story is complemented by Uno Helmersson tender score that is sparingly used and never intrudes or manipulates.

As the film progresses, we learn that Amin’s peaceful childhood was violently and irrevocably interrupted by the kidnapping of his father, and as the turmoil in Afghanistan began to intensify with the Soviet withdrawal and rise of the Taliban, his mother and his siblings decided to flee their home nation for Russia. When Amin recalls the state of the country at that time, we see some confronting and harrowing archive film footage that underscores the urgency with which his family needed to leave, and reminds us that this compellingly unfolding narrative is a factual one. Through multiple interview sessions, Amin begins to open up more to Jonas, detailing the treacherous and traumatic journey that led him to finally arrive in Denmark to claim refugee status. For the sake of retaining that status, Amin has had to keep some elements of his story secret for decades and he confides in Jonas that this is the first time he’s ever talked about what really happened in full.

Amin’s burgeoning gay sexuality manifests itself in an early crush on the action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme, “I kind of knew all along that I was into men” he says, as we see a young Amin looking up from his childhood bed at a poster of the movie star. Later there’s a gorgeous moment where Van Damme winks at the infatuated Amin from a television screen. Amin says his realisation that he was gay was something that he struggled with given that “In Afghanistan homosexuals didn’t exist. There wasn’t even a word for them. They brought shame on the family, so it was hard to accept.” As the brilliantly structured documentary moves back and forth between his younger self and the present day Amin living with his fiancé Kasper in Denmark, he examines his journey of self-acceptance, and the challenge he has faced in building trust and intimacy in romantic relationships.

As Ari Folman’s Oscar-nominated feature documentary Waltz with Bashir, and in another medium Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, both proved, animation and illustration can be used to deal with serious subject matter, making it digestible without trivialising it, while bringing a moving poignancy to the material and facilitating a close connection for the audience. There’s something elemental about animation that touches us and resonates on a deep level. Without sacrificing the truth or reducing Amin’s experiences, Rasmussen’s approach creates just enough distance to allow us to cry, while the bursts of actual film footage such as that which depicts dead bodies on the streets of Kabul, jolt us as viewers, searing that bit more in this context.

With refugees and migrants so often demonised, scapegoated, and used to stoke fear and resentment, there’s something universal and humanising about animation that means Flee has the potential to have an indelible impact on its audience, to change hearts and minds without preaching, just through the power of brilliant storytelling. As Amin’s tale is relayed to us, Flee partly becomes a film about storytelling; the stories we tell ourselves; the ones we keep secret; how we frame the stories that we share with the world; and the vital importance of sharing a story like Amin’s. With Emmy-nominated Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Golden Globe-nominated Sound of Metal star Riz Ahmed both serving as executive producers on the film, hopefully it is a story that will be shared far and wide.

Flee doesn’t pull any punches, the journey Amin took from Afghanistan to Denmark over several years was often terrifying, but there’s hope in his story too as Amin faces his past it helps him to heal and fully embrace his present with his fiancé Kaspar. One of the most touching and memorable moments in the film, which left me weeping, takes place in a gay club as Amin steps inside one for the first time. As for many of us, its a place where Amin felt a sense of being at home, and the film explores the nuances of what that word means for someone who had to flee his homeland as a child. A stirring, unforgettable, and vital film.

By James Kleinmann

Flee had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary and was purchased by US distributor NEON.

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