Flee (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A simple but extraordinary animated documentary film

“Flee”, which was recently selected as the Danish entry to Best International Film Oscar, is a simple but extraordinary animated documentary film. As sensitively and thoughtfully examining one real-life Afghan immigrant’s past which has been suppressed at the corner of his traumatized mind for many years, the film gives us a number of haunting moments to remember, and its harrowing human tale sadly resonates with how the history tragically repeats itself in Afghanistan at present.

The main narrative frame of the documentary is a series of private interview sessions between director Jonas Poher Rasmussen and an Afghan immigrant called Amin, who was incidentally Rasmussen’s old high school friend. As Amin is rather awkwardly lying down on a carpet, Rasmussen asks a number of questions about Amin’s past, and, despite some understandable reluctance at first, Amin slowly comes to reveal what he has never told anyone around him for years since he came to live in Denmark.

As Amin reminisces about his suppressed past, the documentary takes us to Kabul, Afghanistan during the late 1980s via the mix between archival footage and animation. Although things had not been exactly good in the city due to the Soviet–Afghan War, young Amin and his family lived fairly well in their house, and young Amin remembers how he used to be rather flamboyant during that period – and how he also started to be aware of his homosexuality. At one point, he confides to Rasmussen that he was quite infatuated with a certain popular action movie star, and I could not help but amused a bit as remembering how I often strongly responded to those bodybuilder photographs even when I was very young.

As he grew up, young Amin became more sensitive to his surrounding environment, and we get to know a bit about how his father, who was a military officer, was taken away and never returned some years ago. When the eventual end of the Soviet-Afghan War was followed by the Afghan Civil War, Kabul became a lot more unstable than before, and young Amin and his family had no choice but to leave their country as soon as possible.

What follows next is a series of sad and heartbreaking moments not so different from whatever those numerous refugees around the world are suffering and enduring even at this point. Although they all luckily left Kabul at the very last minute, young Amin and his family soon had to deal with the harsh conditions of living in Moscow, and they were frequently threatened by those greedy local police officers expecting some bride from them.

At least, the family was helped a bit by Amin’s older brother who already fled to Sweden, but the circumstance remained pretty daunting to say the least. They certainly had to leave Moscow as soon as possible, but those human traffickers were the only option for them, and Amin certainly does not have any nice word about human traffickers, who surely represent one of the worst sides of the humanity in my humble opinion.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that young Amin finally managed to leave Moscow, but what he went through during that time was pretty traumatic to say the least. Besides being separated from his dear family members, he was virtually forced to put away his whole past behind his back, and he could not tell anyone around him about who he really was, even after eventually coming to live in Denmark.

And how Amin has distanced himself from his past has affected his personal life a lot. Although he is a fairly successful researcher with a PhD degree and has a good boyfriend who cares about him a lot, he has been not particularly willing to have a more stable life, and that accordingly generates considerable strain between him and his boyfriend.

The documentary is basically a long and difficult therapy which feels quite vivid and striking via animation, and that reminds me a lot of Israeli Oscar-nominated animated film “Waltz with Bashir” (2008), which revolves around the suppressed traumatic personal memories of the Lebanese Civil War. Like “Waltz with Bashir”, the documentary often hits us hard with a number of simple but powerful animation scenes, and that makes us have more empathy and understanding on Amin’s old but painful traumas – and how much he has been quietly struggling with them behind his back.

Nevertheless, the documentary also shows some hope and optimism around the end of Amin’s difficult emotional journey. There is a poignant scene which shows when he became much more comfortable about his homosexuality than before, and there is also a brief but undeniably touching moment showing how he comes closer to his boyfriend after coming to learn more about himself through his interview sessions with Rasmussen.

Overall, “Flee”, which won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary section when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is another memorable documentary film of this year, and I come to admire its empathically humanistic approach as reflecting more on those many unforgettable moments in the documentary. In short, this is another indelible case of documentary and animation, and I sincerely urge you to check it out as soon as possible.

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