Flee (Flugt) ★★★1/2
Availability: Still showing in some theaters nationally; for rent, purchase and streaming on many platforms, including Hulu, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and others; see JustWatch here.
He’s told to move his face to fit in the frame of the camera and to close his eyes. This is the beginning of the interview—fashioned as if on a psychoanalyst’s couch—of a man who has lived through severe trauma, who is not sure he is ready to tell his story, even to his good friend, the director and writer Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Amin fled Kabul when he was 6; it’s now 30 years later. For almost all of that span of time, he’s suffered from deep fear: the fear of being returned to Afghanistan (or Russia), of loss of family, of never finding a home, of loss of self.
“What is home?” is the first question Rasmussen asks, and his subject ponders, “Home?...it’s someplace safe…where you don’t have to move on.”
“What is home?” is the first question Rasmussen asks, and his subject ponders, “Home?...it’s someplace safe….not temporary…where you can stay and you don’t have to move on.” Until the end of this “true story” (a statement made in the opening frame), Amin, who has lived in Denmark for more than a decade, has not found his home. Not physically, not psychologically.
The animation-documentary style provides breaks
from the interview. Above, Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen
(seen from behind) talks with Amin.
Amin’s journey—as long and circuitous as that of Odysseus—begins with the escape from Afghanistan, where, along with his mother, two sisters, and brother, he leaves their comfortable middle-class life with just the possessions they can carry. Among those possessions is the watch his father leaves behind when he is taken to prison by the Mujahedeen, and then disappears.
Much of the time the family is stuck in Russia, where, once their visas expire, they are subject to the whims of the corrupt Russian police, one of whom will end up with that watch. The sisters have another journey, locked in a cargo container and eventually deposited in Sweden, survivors among 64 dead. Finally Amin is sent off by himself, as his mother and brother use their remaining money to pay a “legitimate trafficker” for the transit of one person. The still-quite-young Amin arrives in Copenhagen, alone.
The sisters in the locked cargo container, the family in the closed, leaking hold of a ship, a snowy trek across woods to escape Russia (where a boy’s lit-up tennis shoes could lead to his being left behind)—these are only a few of the experiences that threaten the migrants with horrific choices and with death. Some might see the unrelenting trauma as less than “true”; surely Amin and his family had moments in which they felt joy, or release, or the exhilaration of the sense of escape. Yet Amin’s narrative is what he feels as he is interviewed, how he relives those repressed experiences, complete with flashes of survivor guilt.
If there’s any relief from that
it’s another kind of flight.
Amin (right) is attracted to men.
If there’s any relief from that unrelenting anxiety, it’s another kind of flight. The young Amin is attracted to men, Jean-Claude Van Damme in particular. He knows he must not have these feelings; they could cause him to lose his family (another kind of “home”) if he expresses them, since gayness is considered a shame and embarrassment in Afghan culture. Still, the attraction to men, which continues throughout his journey, brings light to the darkness, a hint of joy to the sadness. It also produces one of the few weak, even hokey, scenes, in which Amin is escorted to a gay night club.
Like many survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, this Afghan refugee has for decades buried his memories and suppressed his emotions.
Like many survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, this Afghan refugee has for decades buried his memories and suppressed his emotions. Rasmussen tried for years to convince Amin to tell his story, and it was only with the suggestion of animation, providing some anonymity (except Rasmussen’s, the names are fictional), that his subject agreed. Animation also puts some distance between a horrific past and the present, as did “Waltz with Bashir” (2008, on the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon) and “Persepolis” (2007, set during the 1980s Iranian Revolution). “Flee” uses different modes of animation, including ghostly figures that represent the memories in Amin’s head and some plainer and more realistic ones that allow for simplified expression of emotions (in young Amin’s eyes, for example, that are almost points of light). Superb editing employs filmed news excerpts—shown in color in a square box format—that both divert from, and add to, the horror.
“Flee” hardly needs contemporary touchstones, but it poignantly evokes today’s headlines.
“Flee” hardly needs contemporary touchstones, but it poignantly evokes today’s headlines. Although made well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the references to the war are startling: a film clip of the 1990 opening of the first McDonald’s in Moscow (Amin and his brother were there); the Ukrainian airline “saving” him from Russia; the corruption and vile behavior of Russian authorities; and, of course, the flight of refugees now broadcast 24/7 to the world.
In convincing Amin to talk, Rasmussen has produced a work earning nominations in 3 signature Oscar categories: Best International Feature Film, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Animated Feature Film, a first-ever trifecta. Given the competition this year, it arguably warrants a fourth: Best Picture.
Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Starring: As noted, except for Rasmussen, the real characters’ names are fictional. The only “actors” are voices, and the only ones listed are for Amin and some of his siblings at various ages and a few minor characters.
Countries: Denmark, also: Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, United Kingdom, United States, Finland, Italy, Spain, Estonia, Slovenia
Languages: Danish, English, Dari, Russian, Swedish; subtitled in English; there is also a version dubbed in English
Runtime: 89 minutes
Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature Film, Best International Feature Film (Denmark)
Other Awards: 76 wins and 136 other nominations to date