REVIEW – ‘Flee’ is simply extraordinary

Despite all the inroads of studios like Pixar, Disney, and Sony Pictures, feature-length animated films are still mostly considered a genre of cinema made for children. It’s a moderately fair generalisation for a style of film that began as pure family entertainment. That’s why it’s always such a thrill to see a filmmaker utilise animation in a decidedly adult manner. A brilliant fusion of documentary filmmaking and striking animation to uniquely deliver a compelling true story, Flee is simply extraordinary. It’s not just an exceptional documentary or an incredible animated feature film. It’s one of the best films of the year, period.

In intimately telling one man’s harrowing journey from Afghanistan to Denmark, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen perfectly captures the psychological scars of a refugee haunted by his past. Released in the aftermath of another wave of Afghan exiles escaping the reemergence of the tyrannical Taliban, Flee could not be more pertinent. By utilising exceptional animation with a moving narrative, it pushes the notions of documentary filmmaking to present a voyage of self-discovery and identity you won’t soon forget.

For Rasmussen, Flee is a deeply personal film. Not because it’s his own story, but because he’s been entrusted with the responsibility and significance of telling the experiences of someone dear to him. It was in the mid-1990s when a 15-year-old Rasmussen first met shy Afghan refugee “Amin Nawabi” (a pseudonym to protect his identity) on the train to school in their quiet Danish town. Despite the two becoming close friends, Rasmussen wouldn’t learn of Amin’s painful and complicated story for many years. Once he knew the harrowing tale of how this orphaned Afghan ended up in Denmark, he felt compelled to make this film.

Rasmussen could have possibly adapted Amin’s story into an Oscar-bait biopic. Or he may have simply plonked his friend in front of a camera and asked him to recount his journey directly to an audience. Instead, he daringly utilises several distinctive styles of animation interjected with archival footage to bring Amin’s evocative and riveting narration to life in remarkable style. Naturally, this also helps keep Amin’s identity a secret, given the telling of this story in a public forum could bring serious ramifications for both himself and his family. This highlights how high the stakes are here, but also how passionately both Amin and Rasmussen feel about the importance and catharsis of sharing this narrative with the world.

Flee begins its journey through Amin’s life with his carefree childhood in Kabul in the 1980s where happy memories of flying kites and playing with his brothers and sisters are torn apart by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Forced to abandon the only world he’s ever known, Amin’s quest for freedom will see him separated from his family as they desperately attempt to relocate each member to safety in Western Europe via cruel human traffickers. From here, he’ll experience terrifying encounters with the corrupt police of Moscow and a near-death incident on a cargo ship smuggling too many fellow asylum seekers before finding himself in Denmark alone and scared of a life without the comfort of his family.

Adding an additional layer of fear is Amin’s burgeoning homosexuality, which he’s kept hidden for dread of persecution from his Muslim community and devoutly religious family. As a young boy, Amin knew he was “different,” given his constant adoration of a poster of a shirtless Jean-Claude Van Damme on his bedroom wall. It’s another level of anxiety that makes his physical and emotional voyage so uncertain and difficult. He’s a refugee that’s searching for a home that will accept him not just as a Muslim immigrant but also as a young gay man. When Amin eventually steps foot in his first gay club, it’s a moment of pure liberation and safety he deserves after so much turmoil.

Over the course of 90 minutes, Amin’s vulnerable, raw, and honest narration plays like we’re witnessing an intimate therapy session. In many ways, that’s entirely what we’re experiencing. And it’s a privilege to be invited into such a process. Rasmussen has provided an environment where Amin feels safe to let his walls down and relive memories he’s clearly kept buried for many years. It’s a cathartic release for a refugee who’s naturally still traumatised by the tragic experiences of his youth. But in repressing his pain, Amin cannot heal from it. By the conclusion of Flee, he makes peace with his demons and crippling survivor’s guilt that allows him to accept he’s entitled to happiness.

Overseen by animation director Kenneth Ladekjær, the imagery of Amin’s life is both beautiful and tragic. Ladekjær and Rasmussen wisely never sanitise the stark horrors of this story. The rotoscoping of Amin’s interviews capture the raw emotions of his narration, particularly in times when he needs a moment to close his eyes and compose himself before delving back into his trauma. When we’re taken back to Kabul or Moscow, the sequences play like fractured memories without the fancy gloss of typical animated fare.

Viewing such an emotional journey is an overwhelming experience. We’ve seen the stories of refugees in numerous documentaries and films in the past, but rarely with such immediate intimacy and delicate nuance. You can tell how deeply Rasmussen cares for Amin and his unwavering desire to get this right. He’s created this film as both a beautiful tribute to his friend and as a therapeutic space where Amin can reveal his trauma and find a way to move beyond the crushing weight it carries.

Calling Flee a groundbreaking piece of cinema almost feels like an understatement. On a stylistic level, it combines documentary and animation filmmaking in spectacular fashion. But it’s the gorgeous heart of Amin and the unguarded delivery of his story that elevates this film into the realm of something truly special. It’s both a devastating portrait of the trauma of the refugee experience and a captivating ode to the resilience of the human spirit. An astonishing film that demands to be seen and heard, Flee is quite simply a masterpiece.

Distributor: NEON/Madman
Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Producers: Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen
Animation Director: Kenneth Ladekjær
Animation Producer: Charlotte De La Gournerie

Screenplay: Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Amin
Music: Uno Helmersson
Editor:  Janus Billeskov Jansen
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Date: 17th February 2022 (Australia)