Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Following universal acclaim at Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals, the US release of Danish animated documentary Flee was greeted by three Academy Award nominations, becoming the first film ever to receivde nods in the animated feature, documentary and foreign language categories. Now, UK audiences can finally see this moving story about a young gay refugee who fled Afghanistan for themselves.
Filmmaker Jonas is interviewing Amin, whom he has known since they were teenagers. Slowly, the latter begins to reveal the story of his childhood, a truth he has not told even to his fiancé, Kasper. During the Soviet-Afghan war, Amin’s father became a political prisoner. Following the Soviet withdraw from Kabul in 1989, the family fled to Russia, fearing reprisal from the mujahideen. His older brother is living in Sweden, who tries to arrange for human traffickers to take them across the Baltic Sea, but attempt after attempt is thwarted or goes awry, leaving the family increasingly desperate to live together in safety.
With animation used to hide the identities of those involved, using this form gave the director the freedom to recreate moments from Amin’s past, but this is enacted with subtlety and restraint. Simple but realistic drawings bring this world to life, but this is complimented by fuzzier and looser sketches for the film’s more violent scenes. Alongside these, we also see news footage of real events as they creep into Amin’s story: the Afghan civil war, the human traffickers, the detention centre in Estonia. These momentary returns to reality serve to constantly remind that this is a true story, not just something concocted with an artist’s pencil.
An animated documentary might sound like an unusual concept, but it’s a versatile format that allows the director to fully illustrate Amin’s story. I guess, technically, this would count as a docu-drama, but there’s something that feels a lot more authentic about this method of reconstruction over using real-life actors. And with an animator that showed real nuance in its realisation, Flee feels trustworthy and unembellished. Like Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir before it, this flexible medium is used with careful aplomb to tell a moving and profoundly human story that doesn’t hold back on the details; from Russian corruption to inhumane detention camps, we see it all carefully composed on the page before us.
Amin’s personal story is moving too. From playing dress-up in Kabul through to his first trip to a Copenhagen gay bar, Amin’s sexuality provides vivid colour alongside the film’s central narrative. In one moving scene in Denmark, we see him ask his doctor for medicine to “cure” him of being gay. The importance of family sits right at the film’s centre – their struggle to remain together is the crux of the film – but Amin’s anxiety about how they will react if he comes out becomes his primary concern. After all, he didn’t choose to migrate halfway across Eurasia only so he could be rejected by his family upon arrival. And it’s this dichotomy that comes into focus in the film’s final act.
Though not the first animated film to deal with as dark and as sensitive a topic as this, this is a very strong piece of filmmaking that has found a creative and compelling way to tell Amin’s truth on screen. An original format – I’ve certainly never seen an animated talking-heads interview before – it finds its stride quickly and we lose ourselves in this animated world, albeit never far away from the horrific reality of what it means to be a refugee.
UK Release: Out now on to watch on VOD, released by Curzon