Onscreen animation is usually about flights of fancy or manic goofiness, about fantasy and escapism and wild audacity. Flee’s use of animation is nothing like that. This is a film rooted in tough emotion and hard realities, impressionistic sketches depicting things half-remembered from the past, or a simple, almost graphic-novel style laying a difficult present before us unadorned.
Animation provides a vital cover for its protagonist, too: anonymity. Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen has several previous documentaries under his belt, but none of them were animated. Here, it protects the identity of his childhood friend, “Amin Nawabi” (not his real name; other details have been altered as well), as Nawabi tells the story of how, as a child, he fled Kabul, Afghanistan, with his family in the early 1990s, and how he ended up in Copenhagen a few years later, on his own. Nawabi needs protection for many reasons, including his own psychological fragility, but the most important reason may be this: his asylum in Denmark is based on a lie. A necessary one, one that comes with its own tragedy, but a lie nevertheless.
Some will find that incendiary, a reason to mistrust refugees and asylum seekers. I hope the heartbreaking beauty of Flee will soften such conviction. For this is a deeply humane movie that makes solidly palpable the desperation of those who undertake such dangerous journeys as Nawabi’s, and makes an unspoken, effortless plea for compassion for their distress.
Home is, Nawabi decides at an interview prompt from Rasmussen as the film opens, “where you know you can stay, and you don’t have to move on.” The simplicity of this becomes increasingly poignant as Nawabi relates the long, difficult tale of being forced to abandon a happy home in Kabul as the civil war of the 1980s came to an end with the withdrawal of Soviet troops backing the government, and a few years later the Taliban — an offshoot of the US-backed Mujahideen rebels — descending upon the city.
Life in Kabul was mostly carefree, that is, for young Amin. His father had been arrested by the government years earlier — his father was perceived to be a threat to the communist regime, though Nawabi doesn’t seem to know exactly what that might have entailed. Uncertainty, then, appears to have been a constant companion of Amin’s life, and that only got worse as he, his two sisters, a brother, and their mother fled to Moscow, entering on tourist visas and overstaying them while they attempted to get to Sweden, where an elder brother — who’d escaped years earlier to avoid getting drafted into the civil war — was living.
Flee flashes between the present — where Nawabi slowly overcomes his hesitancy to tell his story and struggles with committing to his boyfriend, Kasper — and the past, where we learn why he’s having such trouble: “It takes time to learn to trust people” when you’ve been through what he has. “You’re always on your guard,” even around kindly people, as he finally found in Denmark after years of being abused and taken advantage of, by authorities such as police and border officials, and by criminals such as human traffickers. (Growing up gay in Afghanistan, where, he says, there isn’t even a word for homosexual, has left its own brand of confusion.)
The inhumanity of human trafficking, seen through several horrific journeys here — one for his sisters, another with his brother and mother, a third on his own — is harrowing, agonizing just to hear related. The extreme vulnerability of Amin, his family, and the other refugees he meets, including one brief encounter with a girl in a van that still haunts him, is its own argument for a complete overhaul of how we lucky ones in safe places deal with the unlucky ones who want only the security we have.
This is especially true when the same cycles of violence and suffering are recurring. Flee was produced over the course of several years in the mid 2010s as much of Europe — and in particular Denmark — was hardening itself against refugees. The film debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival (where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary). And yet we saw a near Xerox of Nawabi’s escape from Kabul play out again this past summer, as the US withdrew its forces and the Taliban, now a Western enemy, surged in again. We architects of the crises that create refugees have learned nothing. We will almost certainly hear more stories like Amin’s 30 years from now. A decent, compassionate society would listen to Amin Nawabi’s trauma, understand why he kept his secrets — and still must — and ensure that no one else has to endure what he has. Will we? Can we?
first viewed as part of 2021’s 65th BFI London Film Festival