Visions du Réel ’21: A Refugee’s Journey is Brought to Life in Stunning Animated Documentary ‘Flee’

Still from Flee. A man sits in the centre of the frame, one hand behind his head as he looks off camera to the left. The animation is 2-D, simple line drawing with a naturalistic olour. In the background, out of focus is a urban landscape, seen out of large windows.
A still from Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?”

When Jonas Poher Rasmussen first met Amin Nawabi as a teenager in his small Danish village the two soon became close, but his friend’s past life in Afghanistan remained a mystery. Now in his thirties and a successful academic, Amin is ready to marry his boyfriend and build a life together, but the shadow of his past hangs over his future. Written in close collaboration with Amin (a pseudonym), Flee expands upon key moments in his life each drawn from a series of interviews Rasmussen conducted with his friend over the course of several years.

Amin recalls an idyllic childhood growing up in Kabul in the 1980s, enveloped in love by his parents and siblings. Shortly after the Mujahideen seizes power in Afghanistan his father is suddenly arrested at home and taken away. In 1989, the civil war begins and the family are forced to flee Kabul when the Taliban seize power and western forces left Afghanistan. Amin, his mother, and siblings leave everything behind to fly to Moscow on a tourist visa – but once that runs out they are left unable to move freely without papers. It is a strange time and following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the supermarkets are empty and people are starving. Left in limbo for a year unable to work or study, the family watch Mexican soap operas on television to pass the time. Amin’s brother, now living in Sweden working as a cleaner, saves from his modest earnings to support his family. 

After Amin’s sisters are sent ahead on what proves to be a perilous journey, Amin and his mother flee Moscow with ruthless human traffickers but when the ship sinks they find themselves stranded in an asylum centre in Estonia. He later travels alone to Copenhagen to claim asylum; he is given a fake passport and told to erase his past, “from now on you have no family.”

Animation allows Rasmussen to illustrate Amin’s story under anonymity in the absence of visual documentation but importantly also offers an opportunity for more richness than a conventional approach would allow. Amin’s story comes to life, and the expressive illustrations evocatively capture his story. 2-D colour hand-drawn animation developed by Guillame Dousse and Danish animation studio Sun Creature are interwoven with newsreel footage from YouTube that grounds his story in time and place. These give way to sequences that are drained of colour and rendered in looser, scratchier strokes as Amin’s memories veer into darker territory. Composer Uno Helmersson’s sweeping stringed score traces, while emotive, never feels heavy-handed and is punctuated by perfectly-timed pop songs that add bursts of lightness and evoke the era.

Amin – still only a teenager when he leaves Afghanistan – is grappling with his burgeoning sexuality in a country where, as he puts it, “homosexuality doesn’t exist…there wasn’t even a word for it.” An early infatuation with Jean Claude Van Damme awakens his desires and it is only years later on his journey to Copenhagen years later that he meets his first crush, as they listen to pop music lying next to each other in the darkness. Amin recalls coming out to his siblings with trepidation; while surprised they are accepting, and in one of the film’s most poignant scenes, his brother drops him at a gay club with a warm hug, “don’t worry, we always knew.” 

The film’s power lies in its specificity; it is an immersive experience (we are there with Amin on his journey) and every aspect of his story is handled and illustrated with tender care. Drawing upon his background in radio documentary, Rasmussen has Amin lie down and close his eyes, allowing him to relax and recall his memories in a safe space. He recounts his story under the safety of a pseudonym, but it is his voice we hear.

Interludes from the present day reveal Amin’s reluctance to move forward and his struggles with his past. His siblings have made sacrifices to secure his freedom and feelings of indebtedness to them weigh heavily on his mind. While he now calls Denmark home, Amin nonetheless lives in fear of being deported, “When you flee as a child, it takes time to trust people. You’re constantly on your guard even when you’re in a safe place.” Having channeled all his energy into his education, Amin finds professional success personifying, in many ways, the ‘good immigrant’. But to truly move forward he must confront his past trauma. It is significant that Rasmussen is a close friend and the level of trust required to embark upon this journey together is evident in the film’s intimate approach. Amin has built himself a new life but the fears remain, and the pseudonym not only protects his identity but also ensures the safety of those he loves.

Flee illustrates in heartbreaking detail, the trauma of leaving one’s homeland and the cruel machinations of the systems that arise to capitalise on the desperation of those seeking hope. According to a report from the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) as of 2020, 79.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes; 26 million of whom are refugees with half that number under the age of 18. Flee honours Amin’s resilience and unique journey while serving as a pertinent reminder of the millions of stories that go untold. 

As Amin’s story attests, a refugee’s path to a new life is rarely linear and the path is often characterised by twists and periods of uncertainty. But evident throughout the film is an unwavering sense of hope and his life is bound by unbroken threads of love – from his fond childhood memories in Kabul with his siblings to his brother’s gentle acceptance. 

Flee had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2021 where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary and recently screened at Visions du Réel 2021. The film will be co-distributed by Neon and Participant in North America, Curzon Artificial Eye in the UK and Ireland, Haut et Court in France and Madman Entertainment in Australia and New Zealand. 

Anjana Janardhan is a designer and writer based in London. She writes about film and visual culture for publications including BFI, Sight & Sound, Non-Fiction and Port magazine. You can find more of her work here.

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