Flee (aka Flugt) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Flee has received a lot of genre labels. It’s been referenced as a documentary, a historical drama, and an indie animated picture. It’s all of these things. It’s a personal film of great heart and tragedy that is astoundingly conveyed through the medium of animation.
At the center of this film is Amin Nawabi. He appears in animated form while being interviewed by director Jonas Poher Rasmussen in Denmark. Amin and Jonas are friendly enough with each other that Amin feels as though he can be a bit more open about his childhood. It was rocky, to say the least. As Amin reveals, he grew up knowing only war and persecution.
Early on, Amin defied gender stereotypes and would later grow up to be gay. We know this from how the film keeps cutting back to the present hearing the many discussions between Amin and his husband. But those feelings will remain hidden for much of Amin’s childhood. His life in Afghanistan turned violent as his family fled from mujahideen forces. They would end up as refugees in Russia where they faced even more persecution.
Most of the film finds Amin recounting the desperation of escaping Russian rule. There are many attempts to make it out of the country that fails. Life seems to be a hopeless string of failures and tragedies, especially with Russian forces treating refugees with unfathomable cruelty. Much contemplation is relayed from Amin about his perceptions of growing up during that chaotic time. Even though he tells all of this to a good friend, he’s still uneasy about being this open.
There are so many scenes that stuck with me in this animated biography. During a refugee escape through traffickers on a boat, Amin talks of how a relative spoke of dreams about dying. She spoke of how she imagined her own death was one of drowning, where you sink into the dark depths of water and fail to reach the surface. The imagery it conjures in Amin’s imagination is portrayed with beauty and surrealism through the abstract whimsy of animation. It’s this usage of the medium that engages the viewer in a manner that goes beyond the standard talking-head documentaries.
The depiction of Amin’s life is creatively conceived in how it chooses to stage the world. Scenes of the interview and Amin’s modern lifestyle are portrayed through what looks like a rounded and low-framerate rotoscope. Scenes of the past are portrayed in a similar style but with more of a stylistic and abstract edge. There are also clips taken from news of the era and how it affected Amin’s entire life. I liked this choice, reminding the viewers that while you’re watching an animated drama, the events that occurred were very much real.
This is a mesmerizing film that entrances so easily. It’s loaded with dangers in how Amin and his family try to hide from those seeking to persecute. There’s an odd sense of nostalgia, when Amin recalls the Russian opening of a McDonald’s, marking the same day he was nearly hauled away by Russian authorities for nothing. By the time the film reaches its crescendo of Amin making it to America, there’s a freeing sense of self in the way that he feels comfortable enough to enter a gay club. Years of terror are replaced with relief and love he had always sought. Even though we can see where this road is headed, it’s still a heartfelt moment that is one to behold.
Flee is such a powerful use of the animation medium, using it to perfectly communicate real-life drama in a compelling manner. By the final frame, Amin’s animated story transitions into a reality. We see his new home with his husband take shape. This is easily one of the best films of 2021 and it shouldn’t be missed, especially for being a brilliant showcase of animation’s highest potential.