'Flee' Is A Stellar Exploration Of Refuge Trauma [Sundance Review]

Amin Nawabi is an Afghan refugee living in Denmark. He has a successful career and a boyfriend. Amin is not his real name, though. It’s a pseudonym and for the purpose of sharing his harrowing story, chronicled in the animated documentary “Flee,” it’s a necessity. Even today, if his name was revealed publicly there could be serious repercussions for both himself and his family. That sets the stage for how serious the stakes are in Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s powerful and personal new film. A picture that has finally been unveiled for the world at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival after it was initially chosen for the canceled 2020 Cannes Film Festival last May.

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After escaping his war-torn homeland, a teenage Amin arrived in Copenhagen in 1995 alone with no family or friends to greet him.  Everyone he met, including his longtime friend Jonas (also a teenager at the time), believed his story that the Mujahideen killed his family and he’d “walked” all the way to Denmark from Afghanistan. A little over two decades later, he decides he’s finally ready to reveal what really occured in series of recorded conversations with Jonas. It’s an incredible journey that begins with happy memories of playing with his brothers and sisters in Kabul to hiding from the police in a Moscow apartment for years before finally escaping to Western Europe

When Jonas begins this process Amin is at a tipping point in his life. Now in 36, he’s studied at Princeton University in the United States while in a long-distance relationship with his boyfriend Kasper in Denmark.  Kasper wants to get a house and settle down, but Amin is debating an offer to complete more post-doctorate work overseas. As Jonas notes, Amin has always been seemingly unsettled and whether revealing painful secrets to his friend, and the world, will allow him some peace remains to be seen.

Crafted in the tradition of 2008’s groundbreaking “Waltz with Bashir,” the film differentiates itself not only in its animated aesthetic but in that Jonas has a central role the film as an interviewer. Archival footage of Kabul, post-Soviet Russia, and newsworthy moments in Amin’s trek also pop up to remind you that these events did happen. As captivating a tale as it is, his trauma, like those of many refugees, is not a work of fiction. It’s real and it is lasting.

“Flee” is also a rare window into the eyes of a refugee who is experiencing this displacement as a closeted young gay man. Nawabi knew he was different as a child over his obsession with a Jean-Claude Van Damme poster on his bedroom wall. As he becomes a young adult he worries not only whether he’ll find safety but whether his family will accept him for who he is. In a film full of impressively edited sequences, how Rasmussen, editor Janus Billeskov Jansen (“The Act of Killing”), composer Uno Helmersson and the animation team guided by animation director Kenneth Ladekjær collaborated on this aspect of Amin’s story is undeniably moving.

At the center of the film, however, are the never-ending repercussions of the horrors many refugees experience.  Whether it’s displaced Syrians flooding Europe or Central Americans escaping violent political corruption, Amin’s story is strikingly contemporary. And while there have been multiple documentaries and narrative features conveying their pain over the past decade, there is something striking in the animated storytelling of “Flee” that makes this particular struggle exceptionally poignant and humane. To say it’s a stellar feat of cinema is something of an understatement.