TIFF21 REVIEW: Flee [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 83 minutes
    Release Date: June 17th, 2021 (Denmark) / December 3rd, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Reel Pictures / Neon
    Director(s): Jonas Poher Rasmussen
    Writer(s): Jonas Poher Rasmussen & “Amin Nawabi”

This is where my story begins.

Documentarian Jonas Poher Rasmussen went to a lot of trouble to keep his friend and subject of Flee a secret. It’s with good reason too since the story divulged is one that could feasibly send him back to Afghanistan despite living the majority of his life in his adopted country of Denmark. More than just using a pseudonym (Amin Nawabi), however, the interviews also become rotoscope animation as a means of amplifying anonymity. There are obviously still risks involved from the simple act of explaining they’re friends (although, perhaps, how they met might not be entirely true either considering Rasmussen admits there were few immigrants in his hometown while growing up), but every measure appears to have been taken to share Amin’s harrowing journey as safely as possible.

It’s relevant too when you think about why Amin left to begin with. The Taliban took control of Afghanistan while he was a boy, turning it into a jihadist state and subsequently imprisoning his father as a potential communist threat. Rasmussen sprinkles in a few instances of period-specific footage to give a sense of the places Amin travels through, but one newsreel clip says it all with a Taliban leader from the 80s explaining how America’s involvement with their enemies could just drag them into a second Vietnam War (like the one we finally admitted to losing a few weeks ago while evacuating thousands). The concept of refugees isn’t going to go away, but perhaps this detailed account can help host nations better understand the danger leaving entails.

Because this isn’t some cut and dry human trafficking story. Amin’s eventual escape to Moscow with his mother, brother, and two sisters was supposed to be a layover to that exact type of asylum seeking, but many things went awry. Money became an issue. Police corruption postponed plans and altered them. The family was even on a sinking boat at one point with the hope of reaching Sweden. With every attempt came a new obstacle and that’s after dealing with the disappearance of his father and forced enlistment into the army of another brother. That they even got out of Afghanistan at all is a miracle, though, so you almost can’t be surprised how much work and sacrifice was necessary for him to cross the finish line.

More than that main interview—the first time Amin ever told the whole truth—is also a look at the psychological impact of enduring so much tragedy and fear at a young age. Add the fact he was also dealing with the realization he was gay (something his culture rejected so vehemently that there wasn’t even a word for it in Dari) and it’s amazing he’s exited the other side with as much assuredness as he has to trust Rasmussen and, really, the world at-large with what he’s feared revealing for over two decades. He still finds opening up to his fiancé Kasper difficult, deciding to go house-hunting in Denmark despite not yet telling him he’s doing his post-doctorate in America. Amin’s roots have never not been uprooted.

And that’s why letting it all out here might just be the catharsis he needs to take that next step forward. Remove the weight of responsibility that’s been on his chest ever since stepping off the plane in Europe (or divert some of its pressure, at least) and this new chapter of his life can officially begin with the first deep breath he’s had since childhood. It’s a rough path either way with the emotions reliving it all out loud conjures, but it’s important for those who’ve been lucky enough to never have to go through the same process to hear. There can be no shortcuts—not even those moments that Amin still looks back upon with disgust either at the perpetrators or himself for not stepping in.

By making it animated, Rasmussen is also afforded the opportunity to prevent Flee from becoming one long interview. While showing Amin looking into the camera and talking is a great set-up for every subsequent episode, his words soon become narration for reenactments via polished two-dimensional cell drawing or more expressionistic silhouette depending on the dramatic heft involved. The styles themselves are also attractive and detailed enough to ensure the medium transcends any notion of gimmickry regardless of its necessity already dispelling that narrative before we even sit down. And just because what Amin went through sounds similar to countless other accounts doesn’t somehow diminish it. Whether the first or the last, no experience is less crucial than another. If it were, Earth’s refugee crisis wouldn’t be a crisis.

courtesy of TIFF

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