Flee is an astonishing animated portrait of a young refugee

Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s intimate animated feature looks back on the personal experiences of Amin, a gay man living in Copenhagen who was forced to flee Afghanistan as a child.

Flee (2021)
Flee (2021)Courtesy of London Film Festival
  • Reviewed from BFI London Film Festival 2021 

We first meet Amin as an adult living in Copenhagen. He lies down, faces the ceiling and, in what first resembles a meeting with a psychiatrist, reveals his earliest memory. In fact, he is being interviewed for what will become Flee, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s astonishing animated documentary that explores Amin’s journey from a childhood in Kabul that is changed forever when insurgent mujahideen forces his family to flee the country, to a hostile adolescence in Moscow, where they seek asylum, to his current life in Denmark, where he is soon to marry his partner, Kasper. While Amin’s tale is often traumatic, it is one filled with great love and even humour.

Watching the film in late 2021, when Taliban militants in Afghanistan have reclaimed power and the media has once again been filled with harrowing images of citizens piling into military cargo planes, the film’s scenes of migration – often under extremely dangerous conditions – hit particularly hard. The most powerful, unforgettable sequence in Flee shows Amin’s family embarking on a terrifying passage towards Scandinavia led by a gang of vicious people traffickers. Animation does full justice to the traumatic crossing in a dark, leaky freight container, as frightened men and women appear in a frenzy of anguished silhouettes. Another memorable scene depicts a refugees’ vessel dwarfed by a massive ferry packed with snap-happy tourists, underlining the vulnerability of their status. While others are jubilant at the presence of the ship, Amin is humiliated: “I’m embarrassed… embarrassed and ashamed of our situation”.

The Mujahideen are rarely seen in Flee, although the impact of their rule, including the disappearance of Amin’s father, is felt throughout. They are far from being the only villains in Flee. Like Ben Sharrock’s Limbo (2020), Flee furiously criticises the hostile treatment of refugees abroad. While the brutality of the traffickers disgusts Amin, even greater rage is reserved for the wickedness of the Moscow police, described as “the worst people in the world, they stank of vodka”, they are shown throughout as corrupt, bullying and violent. We catch a glimpse of this behaviour at the opening of Russia’s first McDonald’s, which is swiftly interrupted by the arrest and abuse of young refugees. It’s little wonder Amin’s family seek escapism through the campy melodramas of the Mexican soaps – crudely dubbed into Russian – that dominate the TV schedules.

Flee (2021)
Flee (2021)Courtesy of London Film Festival

Amin’s realisation of his sexuality from a young age, from childhood crushes on Hollywood and Bollywood stars to a beautiful connection he forges with another young refugee on their journey to different destinations in Europe, is addressed with real warmth. Flee deftly focuses on moments of intimacy other films ignore – Amin taste-testing his partner’s cooking, bonding with the filmmaker over their love of Jean-Claude Van Damme films (albeit for very different reasons), sharing headphones with a cute boy to listen to Roxette’s ‘Joyride’. Amin’s teenage reaction when he learns that his homosexuality is not something that can be, in his words, “cured” will be both heart-breaking and perhaps even humorously relatable to many gay viewers: “Okay, fuck… It’s something I have to live with”. As it turns out, Amin will learn to openly and enthusiastically embrace his sexuality once free of the shame that has plagued him.

The decision to tell Amin’s tale through animation recalls Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), although unlike Folman’s grim depiction of war crimes, Flee has moments of great joy. An exhilarating sequence of young Amin dashing through the streets of Kabul to A-ha’s ‘Take On Me’, with a whirl of energy and flight that recalls the kinetic animation of the band’s music video, is quite wondrous. A trip to a gay bar offers a tremendous moment of liberation. Animation also necessarily protects anonymity; an opening intertitle clarifies that this is a true story but that “some names and locations have been altered in order to protect the members of the cast”. The devastating ending of Waltz with Bashir uses real archive footage of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Flee, too, uses real life footage, often news reports that add context to Amin’s plight, including reportage of refugees marooned in Estonia and a near-fatal boat crossing that almost claims the lives of his sisters. The final image, though, ends the film on a deserved, overwhelmingly moving note of optimism.

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