‘Flee’ Review: A Groundbreaking Animated Documentary Tells a Refugee’s Story

Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Writers: Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Amin

Synopsis: Flee tells the extraordinary true story of a man, Amin, on the verge of marriage which compels him to reveal his hidden past for the first time. 

Making an animated documentary presents several opportunities for a filmmaker. It allows for the subject’s identity to be protected and to illustrate events in the past that were not captured on film. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee is able to tell the story of Amin Nawabi (using a fake name), hiding the subject and his family’s true identities for legal reasons and bringing us along for events in Amin’s childhood that were not recorded. Animated documentaries are rare, but Flee shows that perhaps they should be made more often because of their logistical purpose and narrative power. 

In this Danish film, Amin shares his story for the first time, something he feels he needs to do before settling down with his boyfriend. He chronicles how he fled from his home country as a child to Russia and then later to Denmark. One thing that makes this film so unique is that Amin is actually a friend of Rasmussen’s, whom the filmmaker has known since they were teenagers, and is sharing his story with not just the world, but also his friend.

The film blends together animated interview sequences between Rasmussen and Amin with animation of the events being described and real live action footage from the time period. There are a couple of different styles of animation used, with the film occasionally shifting to a different look for a harrowing moment, or one that Amin himself doesn’t remember well. The film manages to pack a lot into a compact ninety minutes, while being paced well the whole way through.  

We also see Amin in the present day, as he’s a successful academic and looking for a house with his Danish boyfriend Kasper. He still grapples with the events of house youth and the effects it has on his current relationships with people. The interviews feel more like therapy sessions, and not only because he’s lying down for many of them, but for the sometimes painful, but cathartic way he is able to finally open up about his past. 

Amin takes us back to his earliest memories in Kabul in 1984, where he lived with his mother and siblings. He had an initially happy childhood, despite trouble brewing and his liberal father being taken away. He was always “a little bit different” and enjoyed dressing up in his younger sister’s nightgown and dancing along to music (the film has a great soundtrack). Things get darker when the family flees to Moscow, the only country that will take them, and attempts to survive there for several years until Amin’s older brother can scrape together the money to bring them to Sweden.

Rasmussen does an excellent job of transmitting the tension and fear of the family, as they try to avoid the Russian police discovering their lack of proper immigration papers. Later, Flee shows how Amin’s family, a few at a time, paid traffickers to transport them illegally out of Russia. The sequences of the trafficking highlight the absolutely inhumane conditions that people go through, trying to escape conflict and violence in their own countries. 

Flee largely focuses on the experience of being a refugee, but it’s also about family and one man’s journey with his sexuality. Even though he realizes that he’s gay at a young age, he fears coming out to his family because of the conservative views that many in the Middle East have towards sexuality. More than anything, this is a story about a man finally finding the courage to share his deep and traumatic past and hopefully finding some healing through it. While still being honest about the horrors of Amin’s past, it’s a more uplifting story than the audience might expect. 

Flee is certainly not the first animated documentary, but it is Denmark’s official entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the Academy Awards, making it possible that it could be nominated in three categories: International, Animated, and Documentary Film. Considering how uncommon it is for films in any of those three categories to gain traction with other awards, it would be an impressive feat if it succeeded. 

Flee is a beautifully rendered story of a refugee’s life and how his turbulent childhood and adolescence continue to impact him as an adult. Being animated allows this documentary to recreate moments that would otherwise be lost to time while still feeling genuine.

Grade: A-

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