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One of the most exciting international discoveries of last year’s Sundance festival was His House, which explored the cultural dislocation of the refugee experience through a genuinely nerve-rattling horror prism. There’s a comparable genre-defying boldness to Danish writer-director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, which mixes mood-driven, hand-drawn animation with archival footage to trace the harrowing history and lasting psychological scars of an Afghan man hiding from his past for the two decades since being granted political asylum in Copenhagen as a child. It’s a powerful and poetic memoir of personal struggle and self-discovery that expands the definition of documentary.
The film originally was slated to premiere at Cannes in 2020 and will bow in the World Documentary Competition at Sundance with the strategic support of Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who recently signed on as executive producers and will voice the lead roles in a forthcoming English-language version. In addition to its value as a perceptive examination of the lasting trauma imprinted on the minds of vulnerable young refugees, Flee also stands out as an unconventional queer love story, revealing how complete acceptance of one’s own troubled identity is essential in order to find love, marriage and stability.
Rasmussen, who comes from a family of Russian Jewish refugees, first met and became friendly with the protagonist, Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym; names and locations have been changed to protect those involved), in high school. Amin had arrived from Afghanistan around age 11 and was living in a foster home at the time, with little known about the journey that brought him to Denmark. Perhaps prompted in part by his impending marriage to his partner Kasper, Amin chose to open up to Rasmussen about his past, disclosing painful details he had not shared even with his fiancé.
Framed through interview sessions with Rasmussen, Amin’s recollections glance back to his childhood in Kabul, beginning with black and white charcoal drawings of figures running through the streets of a falling city. He then goes back even earlier to 1984, when he was 3 or 4, pumping A-ha’s “Take on Me” through his Walkman as he dances through those same streets in his sister’s nightgown, feeling free and unafraid. He remembers the tenderness of his gray-haired mother, the absence of his father, the stories of his sister and flying a kite off the roof of their house with Saif, the older brother he adores.
He describes Saif as “a real boy,” who gets his hands dirty, breeds pigeons and is an ace volleyball player. But one refreshing aspect of Flee from an LGBTQ perspective is Amin’s relatively relaxed admission that he was comfortable about being “a little different” and knew he was attracted to men from a young age. This is amusingly manifested early on in a MMA fantasy fueled by a Bloodsport poster and Amin’s crush on Jean-Claude Van Damme. Only much later upon arrival in Copenhagen does the stigma of coming from a repressive culture (homosexuality does not officially exist in Afghanistan, where there’s not even a word for it) reveal itself when Amin asks a Red Cross social worker for access to meds to “cure” him.
As part of his adjustment process, he was required to keep a journal of his thoughts during those early years in Denmark, but difficulty reading his handwriting and his rusty command of Dari make that an unreliable source. He struggles to translate an entry about the mujahideen seizing power in Afghanistan, kidnapping his sister and killing his father, mother and brother.
But conflicting memories soon cast doubt over that account, as hazy fragments coalesce to recall his flight to multiple destinations, his agonizing limbo in Russia, his first harrowing attempt to travel to Sweden shepherded by unscrupulous human traffickers, his time in a squalid asylum center in Estonia and his eventual hard-won deliverance. The emergence of a much older brother who had fled to Stockholm years earlier also sheds new light.
The captivating, at times almost child-like simplicity of much of the animation provides a poignant counterpoint to the wrenching story of a displaced family, hiding from authorities eager to exploit their statelessness and their precarious financial situation and safety. Rasmussen and ace editor Janus Billeskov Jansen (The Hunt, The Act of Killing) interweave newsreels of Communist Party ceremonies, political speeches from the Mohammad Najibullah government and the death and destruction of the Afghan Civil War to contextualize Amin’s tortured memories in hard fact.
One of the most illuminating aspects of the film, which Rasmussen co-wrote with Amin, is its insight into the ways in which emotional development can be hindered by the humiliation and shame of the refugee experience, and by the necessary deceptions and false narratives dictated by traffickers.
The impact of all that on Amin’s relationship with Kasper, compromising his ability to feel complete trust or connection with another person, let alone accept the notion of a permanent home, is explored with affecting intimacy. There’s a sad undertow in the simple fact that it seems easier for Amin to describe his affection for a boy whose name he can’t remember, with whom he traveled in the back of a truck out of Russia listening to Roxette, than to express his feelings for the kind, loving, patient man who wants to marry him.
Although the interviews function almost like therapy, there’s nothing didactic here, nothing clinical or overtly analytical. Instead, there’s a kind of spontaneous purity to the storytelling, built on the empathetic connection established between the filmmaker and his subject. The emotional expressiveness of the images, darkening during the more alarming interludes into disturbing visions, is complemented by the sorrowful strains of Uno Helmersson’s string score. And the ending suggests the almost Rohmer-esque influence of nature as Amin’s story of flight becomes one of love, chance and emancipation from the brutalities of the past.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Final Cut for Real, Sun Creature Studio, Vivement Lundi!, Mostfilm, Mer Film, VICE Studios, Left Handed Films, RYOT Films, Arte France
Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Screenwriters: Jonas Poher Rasmussen, “Amin”
Producers: Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen
Executive producers: Riz Ahmed, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Danny Gabai, Natalie Farrey, Jannat Gargi, Hayley Pappas, Matt Ippolito, Philippa Kowarsky
Animation director: Kenneth Ladekjær
Animation producer: Charlotte De La Gournerie
Art director: Jess Nichols
Music: Uno Helmersson
Editor: Janus Billeskov Jansen
Casting: Gro Therp
Sales: 30West, Cinephil
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