Flee (2021)

Flee, by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, a documentary made with a blend of animation and archive footage tells an immensely powerful true story of a gay Afghan refugee coming to Denmark.

A Refugee's Life

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Flee is a harrowing and suspenseful refugee narrative of loss and resilience, and families being scattered across Europe. Paradoxically, telling Amin’s story through animation somehow makes it all the more heart-wrenching, cf Waltz With Bashir. It’s also a coming out story for a gay man born in a country with a traditional culture, where there’s no such word in the language.

Flee is the story of Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Afghan school friend, here given the alias Amin to hide his identity. But the screenplay is co-written by him and the voice is his. Rasmussen sensitively unpicks Amin’s life story for the first time, and reveals the secrets that he has kept to himself all his life. Now settled in Copenhagen, he is an academic, he has come out as gay, is about to buy a house with his fiancé Jasper and take up a research post in the US. Each sequence of reminiscence that takes us through his life story starts with Amin answering Rasmussen’s questions while lying on a couch. Rasmussen even depicts himself in the animation. What comes across is that this painful remembering by Amin is therapeutic, and not exploitative.

Amin grew up in Kabul in a happy family until his father was executed by the invading mujahadeen. Young Amin senses he is gay but the culture in Afghanistan has no place for someone like him so he does not understand what it is and he experiences it as a guilty secret. The family fled to Moscow, where they spent years of poverty and misery in a squalid flat at the mercy of corrupt police. They try to flee to join Amin’s elder brother in Sweden, himself a refugee there, but their only way out is through traffickers who exploit them. There are horrific scenes of the family squashed in a container and a leaky boat off Estonia, sinking as passengers on a passing cruise ship callously take photographs.

Eventually, teenage Amin is trafficked to Denmark alone and lonely at huge cost with a false cover story, though he thought he was going to Sweden, where his mother, sisters and brother finally settled. Later, on a visit to them, he finds his first gay club.

As an adult, making Flee seems to be a first step for Amin towards being able to talk about his life and reveal some of the things he has had to keep secret to survive. “When you flee as a child,” he explains, “you are constantly on guard. You’re afraid to trust anyone. Even your partner. Even your best friend.” It’s a memorable, outstanding film, an empathetic aid to our understanding of the global plight of refugees.

Flee premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, claiming the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema – Documentary. It screened at the Cannes Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival. It is released on 11 February 2022 in the UK.

Flee has also won the Annecy International Animated Film Festival’s Cristal prize for Best Feature and its award for Best Original Music, along with a British Independent Film Award, a Gotham Independent Film Award, the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s award for Best Documentary and a Cinema Eye Honors Award. Throughout the 2021-22 awards season, it has received additional nominations from the Annie Awards, BAFTA Awards, Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, IDA Awards, Golden Globes, PGA Awards, ACE Eddie Awards and Golden Reel Awards.

Flee has just made Oscars history with nominations For Best Animated, Documentary & International Feature, the first time a film had been nominated in all three categories.

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