wed 17/08/2022

Flee review - award-winning documentary portrays the refugee experience | reviews, news & interviews

Flee review - award-winning documentary portrays the refugee experience

Flee review - award-winning documentary portrays the refugee experience

An ingenious deployment of animation and archive

The idyll that was pre-war Kabul, captured in animation

It’s good timing for the release of Flee in UK cinemas. The Danish movie has just made Oscar history by being nominated in three categories – Animated Feature, Documentary, and International Feature and is bound to win in at least one of them. 

Flee's director Jonas Pohar Rasmussen tells the story of an old school friend, who was smuggled into Denmark in his teens when he was a desperate Afghani refugee. In order to protect his friend, who had a long, traumatic journey and is now a high-achieving academic, Rasmussen has changed his name to Amin, but we’re assured that this is a true story based on audio recordings. 

Animation gives Amin not only anonymity but enables Rasmussen to re-create his friend's long dramatic journey in full, only resorting occasionally to well-chosen archive images of war-torn Afghanistan. Amin had a happy childhood with his family in Kabul (his father was a pilot, his mother a loving homemaker). We meet him as an exuberant child who loves to dress up in his sisters’ clothes; there’s a brief visual reminder of The Kite Runner, the 2007 American art-house drama that covered similar territory.

But this is a more complex story about fleeing a repressive regime. Even before the Taliban, Amin knew he was going to struggle with his culture as he realised at a very young age that he was gay. There’s a lovely moment of humour when he imagines his bedroom poster of martial arts star Jean Claude van Damme is winking suggestively at him. Later he asks a Western doctor if there’s a medicine that will cure him from being attracted to men. 

When the Taliban take over, Amin’s father is captured and his older brother fears being forced into the army. Amin and his sisters flee to Moscow with their mother to wait for asylum. Life there is bleak. Holed up in a run-down housing project, they’re at the mercy of corrupt Soviet policemen and terrified when their visas have expired.

Traffickers get the sisters to Sweden via Estonia in a sealed shipping container, but 64 of their fellow refugees die on the journey. Amin and his mother make a later voyage in a boat with a failing engine that lets in water.  Rasmussen captures the terror and confusion of these desperate journeys, interleaving sequences of Amin as a child with his adult self recounting painful memories to his friend. 

Flee is exemplary in its storytelling and – like Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir, and Wonderland: The Trouble with Love and Sex – proves that animation can create worlds for an audience that would be difficult if not impossible to film as drama. My only proviso amid all the acclaim the film is receiving is that while portraying the Taliban, the traffickers, and the Soviet and Estonian officials as unmitigated villains, all the Danish figures are saintly and tolerant.

Unfortunately, Denmark’s track record on accepting those fleeing war is far from exemplary. Currently, hundreds of Syrians are being kept in dismal deportation facilities as the Danish authorities are determined to send them back. Amin is a success story – we hear of him marrying his Danish boyfriend, moving together to a hygelig house in the countryside and being offered a place at Princeton university. This is the immigrant story that Denmark can be proud of on the international stage as Flee wins prizes. It’s a nice bit of PR that might obscure the condemnation meted out to the country last summer by the European Court of Human Rights.

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