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In Flee, one Afghan refugee’s story comes to vibrant, animated life

It’s one of 2021’s best films.

An illustration of a man in a white shirt, looking thoughtful.
Flee is an extraordinary documentary that mixes recorded interviews and animation to terrific effect.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Near the end of Flee, the main subject Amin — who fled Kabul, Afghanistan, with his family in the ’90s, when he was a young teenager — is in an airport. He’s reflecting on his own aversion to settling down, staying in one place, building a home with his fiancé Kasper. That reticence is surprising to the audience, since “home” is all he’s wanted since he was a child. But “when you flee as a child,” he explains, you are constantly on guard. You’re afraid to trust anyone. Even your partner. Even your best friend.

So it’s to the credit of Amin’s childhood friend, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen (who attended high school with Amin in Denmark), that he convinces Amin to share with him his extraordinary, harrowing story for Flee, one of the year’s best documentaries — and perhaps its best animated film.

Animation is common enough in contemporary documentaries, usually used as a whimsical tool to illustrate a story or schematic. It’s much rarer to watch a feature-length documentary that, like Flee, is almost entirely animated. Others have done it — 2008’s Oscar-nominated film Waltz with Bashir is a shining example. But animating a film is time- and labor-intensive, and the low budget usually allotted to documentary projects (especially those that aren’t in English) can make it prohibitive.

An illustration of two men, one who is turned toward the other, asking him questions. They’re in an ordinary room with windows.
Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen includes himself in the film as he interviews Amin.

Thank goodness Flee’s filmmakers managed. The animation in Flee is largely simple and realistic, but with a slightly jumpy style that keeps things from feeling like they’re aiming for Adult Swim territory. Occasional charcoal-style drawings and grainy video inserts add depth to the story, but the consistent imagery links the events in Amin’s life, connecting the present and the past rather than feeling like some remote story.

In the present, Amin is pursuing postdoctoral studies at Princeton but living with Kasper during the off months in Denmark, where Amin arrived decades earlier as a refugee. His father was taken away from his family in the early 1990s, when the Moscow-backed Afghan government collapsed, the mujahedeen took over, and conditions became extremely dangerous. He left with his mother and siblings and ended up in Moscow. They attempted to leave for Norway only to be thwarted, spending months upon months stuck inside an apartment while an elder brother tried to figure out how to pay to get them out.

All of this is recounted by Amin in an interview with Rasmussen, who recorded it. Amin’s voice is used as the film’s main vocal track, the animation laid down to illustrate the story he’s telling. But Rasmussen also renders the present in animation, recording the conversations he has with Amin about his difficulties telling the story, his hopes for the future, the memories they share from high school, his experiences coming to terms with his homosexuality in a traditional culture that would not only reject him but also threaten his life. Rasmussen records conversations between Amin and Kasper about the home Kasper wants to buy. You can hear dishes clinking in the background.

The animation is both an aesthetic choice and a practical one. Some of it simply helps protect the identity of some of the film’s refugees or the people who came to their aid, but there’s more than that. Most of the events Amin describes could never have been caught on film; giving the audience even an artful glimpse of these events makes them hit that much harder. One unforgettable sequence involves a boat full of refugees, including Amin, attempting to cross the Gulf of Finland and running into trouble. A cruise ship appears on the horizon and the refugees begin to cheer, assuming the ship full of wealthy tourists will certainly rescue them. But their cheers turn to horror when the tourists stand coolly on the deck, taking pictures of the people in the boats. An announcement comes: The Estonian police have been alerted, and the refugees will be collected and returned to Moscow. It’s devastating. And it wouldn’t have the same impact in a fictionalized tale, or if the scene was rendered as a reenactment or simply Amin talking to the camera.

A young man looks around in a dark club.
A younger Amin visits a club.

And that’s the power of the animation. We’re aware that there’s a level of remove between us and the story, simply because we literally can’t see their faces. Instead, we interact with Amin’s life as if it’s in the grand storytelling tradition, a tale with meaning that stretches beyond the simple facts.

Amin fears being hurt, losing his family, being alone, and being rejected for being gay — and most of his fears come true. He longs for safety and for home, a place where nobody will come to take him away. And yet, when he finds it, he can’t quite believe it. By the time Rasmussen and Amin discuss his history, it’s almost 20 years in the past, but for Amin, it’s as if it happened yesterday. He’s become educated and successful, reconnected with most of his family, and found real love. But even after finding safety and relative stability, Amin’s previous experiences will never stop reaching their long fingers into his present.

There’s a deep meaning to Amin’s story beyond the specific facts of his life. All over the world, people are forced to flee their homes. If they’re very lucky, they might resettle in a place where they’ll be able to live some kind of better life. But that doesn’t mean the trauma subsides. By the end, it seems telling his story — saying it out loud in a safe space, at last — may have helped Amin heal a bit more. Perhaps sharing it with audiences opens the same space for others, too.

Flee opens in theaters on December 3.

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