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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Flee (2021)

Right now, I feel that we are in a golden age of documentary filmmaking. Not only are filmmakers consistently finding interesting new ways to approach non-fiction subjects, but audiences appear to be surrendering themselves completely to them as well. This, is most certainly what director Jonas Poher Rasmussen does with Flee and his subject of Amin Nawabi. He surrenders himself completely to him, letting him take control of his own story, effectively allowing him to steer the ship towards a much-needed confrontation of his past as opposed to completely dictating and forcing the terms upon him.

Flee follows the subject of Amin Nawabi, a refugee from Afghanistan now living in Copenhagen as a successful academic who is also about to marry his long-term boyfriend. Under the encouragement of his close friend and director of the film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Amin is given an opportunity to finally tell his story that is steeped in trauma and his endless desire to find a home.

Although Flee is certainly unique in terms of its animated documentary approach, it’s not the first time it has been done, nor is it particularly ground-breaking. Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir (2008) and Keith Maitland’s Tower (2016) both made use of animation to discuss its topics. But Waltz With Bashir, in particular, made clever use of its gloriously rendered animation as more than just a gimmick in tackling its subject matter of trauma and its effect on sensory memory. It was also an entirely personal story for its director as he tries to remember where he was on a fateful day during the Lebanon War as an IDF soldier in 1982. But, Flee isn’t about uncovering missing memories or even a personal story of its director, it effectively allows for its subject to finally rewrite his secretive backstory as truth. And like Waltz With Bashir, Flee uses both real archival footage and animation to separate sensory memory and historical facts - giving us deep insight into Amin's memories and the trauma that holds the keys to unlocking them.

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

This is the very first question Rasmussen asks Amin at the beginning of the film.

“It’s someplace safe. Somewhere you know you can stay, and you don’t have to move on.”

Displacement is what the refugee story has always been about, but Flee shows us that at the very heart of any refugee’s story is that of identity. Amin mentions that you grow up too fast when you flee as a child: you are forced to survive by completely burying your national, cultural, and even sexual identity as you desperately look for a place to finally call home - a place where you are safe, somewhere you know you can stay put. He was never given the opportunity to become close with anyone in fear of being outed and deported. On top of the national and cultural displacement of his identity, his sexuality forced him to wear yet another layer of disguises in order for him to survive. Even though he always had a clear grasp and understanding of his own sexuality since he was young, he had to hide this from his family and countrymen in fear of him losing any and all sense of belonging he still had left wandering Europe as an Afghan man.

But surely he has finally found his home? He’s a successful academic who is not only openly gay and appears to be happy, he is also in the process of returning to Princeton for a post-doctorate. He eventually found his home right? As each moment progresses with Amin's thoughts and words, it's clear to us that this has never quite been the case. With the process of this documentary, he is finally allowing his true story to come out, finally being able to reveal the extraordinary real story he has been forced to keep hidden for so many years from those around him and himself.

Rasmussen’s handling of Amin’s story is so careful in that he never lets the animation take away from his story. And although it's a visually effective tool, it still somehow takes a backseat that never feels like a gimmick that takes away from what makes Amin’s journey so powerful and easily relatable to its viewers. His words and story are weighted with such sincerity and emotion that the illustrations instead feel like a nice added bonus as opposed to being the only recipe needed to sell his tale. Flee is both a devastating and completely uplifting experience you won't forget any time soon.

Where you can watch it: In select theatres and on most VOD platforms (USA), In cinemas 11 February (UK), In cinemas 17 February (Australia).

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