FLEE (TIFF2021) – Review by Leslie Combemale

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Flee first entered into the cinematic fray at 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where the buzz was nearly deafening, calling it one of the best films, animated or otherwise, of the year. It racked up a slew of awards starting with Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary section, and going on to win Best Feature Film at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. NEON picked Flee up for distribution way back in January. Flee was flying high when it landed on the schedule at TIFF, and unsurprisingly has continued its streak of positive word of mouth. All this ballyhoo was for good reason. Danish writer/director Jonas Power Rasmussen’s documentary Flee about Afghan refugee Amin, his arduous journey getting to Denmark, and how that experience colors his current life, is destined to become a shining example of great indie animation. It may be painful to watch Amin go through the horrors he describes, but it is also an incredibly uplifting, inspiring story that will leave its viewers with a powerful feeling of hope.

Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym) and Rasmussen have known each other since Amin showed up at the writer/director’s high school as a teenager. Now 36, Amin is willing to share the untold story about his 5-year journey fleeing Afghanistan in the 90s. The English version of Flee is voiced by Riz Ahmed as Amin and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Rasmussen, both of whom had come onto the project as executive producers earlier in the production. Created with hand-drawn animation, which allowed for more expressive, emotional visual storytelling, and archival footage from the times represented, Flee is very adult, and very engrossing. Early in the film, Coster-Waldau as Rasmussen asks, “What is home?”, to which Amin responds “Home is someplace safe.” It’s no wonder Amin both questions and finds comfort in a feeling of safety. His story is rife with near-death experiences, humiliation and degradation, and the combination of danger and bitter disappointment that came from repeated failures to escape. There’s also his toxic shame around being a gay man in a country in which, according to officials, homosexuality doesn’t exist. As Amin tells his tale, the film goes back and forth between flashbacks of his experience, and his current conflict and reticence around settling down with his partner Kasper.

The Animated Workshop approached Rasmussen asking whether he had any ideas for an animated documentary, inspiring the filmmaker to approach his friend about revealing his experience. The animation offered an additional layer of anonymity, as well as a way to capture Amin’s struggles in 80s Afghanistan. Over the course of several years, Rassmussen conducted interviews with Amin, in which his friend slowly revealed his story. Appropriate to the global nature of Amin’s story, Flee was a co-production of companies in Denmark, France, Sweden, and Norway. The result is a genre-busting blend of a documentary, an animated feature showing two distinct styles of 2D animation, and a refugee narrative that becomes something innovative and far more than the sum of its parts.

What will strike viewers most about Amin’s journey is the amount of resilience, patience, and optimism necessary to keep him alive and moving forward. It’s bad enough to be a teenager with a missing dad, two sisters, two brothers and mother all seeking a way out of Afghanistan, and into a country that would accept them. It’s far more of a challenge to be that teen knowing gayness was putting his life and the life of his family in danger. Amin is self aware the way many who have lived through hell are self aware. He knows he is broken and has to find a way to become whole again. He must choose the present rather than living in the memories of his past. “Most people can’t imagine what living with this story is like. How much it destroys your life,” explains Amid to Rasmussen.

Just as with a narrative, documentaries have to have suspense and tension as part of the film’s arc, and Flee has that in spades. Audiences are repeatedly left wondering if certain subjects of the story survive. Though unquestionably dark, especially knowing Amin’s testimony is based in real-life interviews, ultimately, there is a tremendous sense of catharsis at the heart of Flee. That is what makes the film work so well and stay with audiences beyond its screen time.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.