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Review: Flee Allows a Man to Share His Refugee Story, If Not Bare His Soul

The film effectively immerses us in the wrenching details of Amin’s story, but it keeps us just a bit too far removed from the man himself.

Photo: Neon

Amin Nawabi, the pseudonymous subject of Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary Flee, is an enigma both to others and himself. An academic who fled Afghanistan for Denmark as a teenager, Amin has kept the particularities of his past a secret even to his closest friends, including Rasmussen, who’s been close with Amin ever since he encountered him on a local train when they were in their teens. Having agreed to tell his story on camera, Amin begins by sharing his first memory—of bopping through the streets of Kabul to the buoyant strains of A-ha’s “Take on Me” while decked out in one of his sisters’ dresses—but no sooner has he begun his story than he shuts down. Even as an adult with a successful career and a loving relationship, he’s still not quite ready to lay himself bare.

We will come to understand that Amin’s reserved nature is both a product of his trauma and a self-preservation technique. As Amin later states, he’s shared his story only once before, to a manipulative boyfriend who used it against him. What’s to be gained by letting people into the messy, painful details of his life? That question receives a crystal-clear answer by the end of Flee, one that might seem like a tired pop-psychological cliché if it weren’t proceeded by a tale that’s told by Amin with profound self-awareness, subtle humor, and rigorous granularity. The point of sharing one’s story is not simply to let others in but to see oneself from the outside, to discover the ways in which the pain of the past continues to define the contours of one’s present, and to figure out how to break free of one’s own self-limiting cycles of behavior.

Certainly, there’s no shortage of harrowing events in Amin’s past to process. His father was disappeared by Afghanistan’s communist government in the ‘80s, never to be seen again, and his family later fled the country when the Islamist mujahideen took power in the early ‘90s, ending up in economically ravaged post-Soviet Moscow where they struggled to eke out a hardscrabble existence. Amin and his family’s attempts to escape Russia—mostly through human trafficking schemes—form some of the most dramatic passages of the film.

In one scene, Amin’s sisters and dozens of other refugees nearly die after being packed into a shipping container bound for Sweden. In another, dozens of desperate migrants, including Amin, are marched through a forest in the dead of night before being stuffed inside a small boat with no radio that gets stranded in the middle of the Baltic Sea during a torrential downpour. Eventually, they believe themselves to be saved by a passing cruise ship, only to be taken to Estonia where they’re held in dire conditions before being deported back to Russia.

These scenes evoke news images from the current ongoing migrant crisis around the globe, but Rasmussen wisely avoids making the parallels explicit. Rather, he allows Amin’s story to remain just that: an account of one person’s refugee story. The film’s epic scenes of perilous border crossings are ultimately less indelible than the small details specific to Amin’s life, such as the way a less-than-pure fascination with Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a role in confirming his sexuality. The way Amin’s homosexuality interacts with his migrant journey is often unexpected, inducing moments of doubt and self-loathing—Amin at one point asks his foster mother for medication to cure him of his gayness—but ultimately leading to the film’s most touching scene, in which Amin’s brother responds to his coming out by assisting him in getting laid. When talking about his sexuality, Amin’s voice vibrates with warmth and good humor, as if it’s the one part of his identity that he’s fully come to terms with.

Unfortunately, Rasmussen’s stylistic choices at times threaten to overpower the personalized dimensions of Amin’s story. Unlike Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, which used animation expressionistically to evoke the fallibility of memory, or Keith Maitland’s Tower, which employed rotoscoping to immerse the viewer in a historical event, Flee uses animation primarily to illustrate events which would otherwise be impossible—or at least financially unfeasible—to recreate. In this sense, Rasmussen’s approach is closer in spirit to a relatively straightforward animated historical drama like Denis Do’s Funan than it is to Folman’s or Maitland’s more experimental documentary-animation hybrids.

In the end, Flee’s style of animation is stilted in comparison to the emotional contours of Amir’s remembrance and introspection. Rasmussen animates not only Amin’s reminiscences but also his interview segments and incidental scenes of his life with his partner, Kasper. Unlike the flashback sequences—which mix robust animation with more roughly sketched black-and-white sequences that suggest the haziness and unreliability of certain of Amin’s memories—these contemporary scenes appear to be drawn on top of actual footage. Rasmussen even reveals to us the two-camera setup he used for the interview scenes, with one camera attached to the ceiling, allowing Amin to be filmed lying down on top of an Afghan rug, and another capturing a wide shot of Rasmussen and Amin together.

The choice to render these contemporary scenes as cartoons was apparently motivated by the need to protect Amin’s identity, and it does help to create a continuity between his past life and his current existence. But it also comes at a cost. Flee’s animation style is a bit too muted and minimalistic to capture the range of feeling we can detect in Amin’s voice, resulting in a film that flattens the subtleties of human expression and as such denies us a more empathic embrace. While Rasmussen effectively immerses us in the wrenching details of Amin’s journey from Central Asia to Scandinavia, he keeps us just a bit too far removed from the man himself.

In the film’s final shot, the foliage on Amin and Kasper’s newly acquired home subtly transitions from a drawn image into photographed reality, and as it does, the full distancing effect of the animation begins to sink in: Even though Amin has shared so much of himself throughout the film, by the time credits roll we begin to realize that we’ve still never seen him as he really is. If the eyes truly are the window to the soul, Flee keeps the blinds half drawn.

Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen Screenwriter: Jonas Poher Rasmussen Distributor: Neon Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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