FLEE — review and reflections

(ca. 1200 words, 3-4 min read time)

FLEE (2021) is an animated film making waves on the independent festival circuit (Cannes, Sundance, et al). I saw it on a $5 budget day, at what may be one of the last remaining independent movie houses in the Pacific Northwest—the Crest Cinema in Shoreline. It is a theater much like the first Nickelodeon in Boston, where I worked during my student years. I was happy to settle into this vintage theater’s ambiance to experience a highly unusual film.

FLEE’s screenplay is by Afghan author Amin Nawabi and Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. The British actor Rizwan Ahmed (Emmy Award) and Dane Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Primetime Emmy nominee, Game of Thrones) voice the two main characters, and also serve as executive producers. FLEE is now Denmark’s official submission for the “Best International Feature Film” category of the 2022 Academy Awards. It has also been shortlisted for “Best Documentary Feature.”

The animation is mostly hand-drawn, much like a graphic novel come to life. At critical points, archival newsreel footage unspools to anchor the story in its historical context. The screenplay of FLEE is based on Nawabi’s own life. At 36, he is a successful academic planning to marry his Danish boyfriend. Yet a secret he has been hiding for more than 20 years looms ever larger. We eventually learn that this is tied to the day he arrived in Denmark. The true circumstances of Amin’s story could not be told, lest he find himself in danger of losing his relationship, his position, and his home.

In a narrative that develops in episodic fits and starts, Amin relates his life’s story to Jonas. The two had met as young men, lost touch, and then reconnected as adults. One trauma is the loss of a father to the repressive Afghan politics of his youth. A second is the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Amin’s family flees, taking only what they can carry. Stateless, they eventually arrive in Moscow and go into hiding from the corrupt local police. After long months, the family collects enough money to pay traffickers to smuggle them out of Russia, with the goal of joining Amin’s oldest brother in Sweden. The sisters go first but barely survive the trip, locked with others in a crate on a freighter. A year later, Amin, his other brother, and their mother buy passage on a smuggler’s boat, again with the hope of reaching Sweden. Adrift in storms on the Baltic sea, the leaky boat eventually encounters a Norwegian cruise liner. The joy of rescue is visceral, but Amin is numb, and his instincts are proven right. The Norwegians alert the Estonian National Guard, and the boat’s refugee passengers are taken back to Tallin and placed in detention. And so it goes, on and on, a grim chronicle of events particular to Amin’s life. But these particulars might be generalized to any refugee fleeing from danger and seeking safety.

Amin’s biography unfolds in memories, some clear and detailed, others vague and fleeting. The animation provides a surprising and flexible way to bring his dreamscape to life—and to emphasize the continuing sense of fragility and hypervigilance he feels in the present. The main characters are given simple outlines, with some thickness, as if drawn with a marker. Lines, slashes, and curves give us eyes, noses, arms, and hands. Colors seem chosen to correspond with mood—grey for anxious, blue for open skies and relief, mixed palettes for nighttime and city scenes. Some characters are fully animated with faces, clothing, and personalities depicted by their movements. Others appear as wraiths or faceless sketches in motion, appearing and then evaporating in moments of anxiety or terror. Thankfully, there are also occasional moments of tenderness and humor, signaled by a movement, gesture, or wink of an eye. Once the viewer acclimates to the style, the artificiality of the animation no longer disturbs, but rather invites continued attention to details.

As the family faces one challenge after another, Amin’s inner life is also gradually revealed–especially his attempts to understand his same-sex attractions. As a gender-fluid boy with a penchant for wearing his sister’s dresses, he was the center of doting attention. As a teen, blending into the background becomes an essential survival skill. This is not a story of a young man’s sexual awakening, and Amin’s fantasies exist mostly in his mind. Spending much of his youth in hiding, the relationships he forms with other teens are fleeting. So while FLEE’s main theme is the search for a safe place to call home, it also about breaking out of a closet of shame and fear around sexuality. By the end of the film, rescue on both fronts mercifully appears to be within reach.

My knowledge of refugee crises over the years is superficial and fleeting. I certainly knew of “boat people” from Haiti and Vietnam. As a student, the plight of refugees was the topic of college classes, occasional church sermons, and reading or watching the news. The reality became a bit closer during the time I lived in Germany, where one might occasionally meet a stateless cleaner (like Amin’s brother) in the theater, or a youngster selling drinks at soccer games. And the recent catastrophes in Syria certainly fueled waves of stateless migrants into the EU. Different countries, but somehow the same stories. Of course, immigration debates during the Trump campaign and presidency brought the topic of “illegal aliens” back to the center of national discourse in the USA. Refugee waves in Europe and Asia may seem removed from our experience as Americans, but the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the southern border swept up hundreds of Amins. For those migrants, it might be years before family reunifications are accomplished, if they are possible at all.

One of the more visceral aspects of FLEE is experiencing human trafficking through Amin’s eyes. The film does not shy away from presenting the gritty ugliness of its situations, but it balances that with flashes of beauty. More fundamentally, FLEE points to the inherent fictions and inequities of national borders, and how the preservation of those borders leads to continual violence and cruelty. The film itself takes no political stand, but challenges the viewer to fully face the suffering that nation-states can inflict on vulnerable individuals.

I experienced both unease and fascination while watching FLEE. And I found myself invested in the characters and situations. Perhaps FLEE will one day appear as a graphic novel–certainly, the animation could easily be re-purposed for this format. Voiced in Danish, Russian and Dari with subtitles, FLEE could be a heavy lift for some viewers. For me, the two hours spent in the theater brought ample rewards. I left the theater grateful for a rich and ultimately hopeful film about one family’s strength and resilience, and its youngest child’s journey from boyhood to his adult present.

Here is a link to the official trailer for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.