Cowriter/director Jonas Poher Rasmussen met his cowriter Amin Nawabi when they were both 15 and living in Denmark.  Jonas knew Amin was a refugee from Afghanistan, but it wasn't until 25 years later that Amin was willing to tell his story about the circumstances around what caused him and his family to "Flee."

Laura's Review: B+

Denmark’s Oscar triple threat (it was submitted as its International contender and is also eligible in the documentary and animation categories) is a deeply moving and involving story recounting the myriad complexities facing those trying to find a better life in a new country.  Amin (the name used here is fictitious to preserve his privacy) was a child in the relatively progressive Kabul of the ‘80’s (shown in the archival footage which occasionally interrupts the animation), unafraid to wear his sister’s dresses (it is his ‘cool’ look that draws Rasmussen’s attention some years later). We learn that there is no word for ‘homosexual’ in Afghanistan, yet another obstacle Amin will face during years of hardship and isolation.  That latter factor will require Amin to be something of a false narrator, a story prescribed by a smuggler for protection laid down in the film’s early goings as fact.

There have been many documentaries about the refugee crisis, but this one is very personal, reminiscent in many ways of “Midnight Traveler,” the documentary shot by Afghan filmmakers Hassan Fazili and Fatima Hussaini as they slowly made their way north with their family, stopping in places that look awfully similar to some of Amin’s way stations.   The major difference here is that Amin’s family, those who were not killed by the Mujahadeen at least, were scattered, the young boy making the perilous journey alone.

While Russian forces were in Afghanistan, Amin’s older brother Saif was sent away to escape forced Army service and once those forces withdrew, what was left of the family fled to Moscow, a city facing shortages, inflation, bad papers and corrupt cops in the chaos that followed Communism.  Amin’s oldest brother, Abbas, is in Sweden where the best work he can get is as a cleaner, trying to save thousands to have them smuggled out.  Their first attempt, via ship, is a miserable journey all for naught when the Estonian Coast Guard is called in and everyone is sent back.  A more expensive trafficker is acquired for only one passage and the decision is made that it is Amin who should go.

The film skips around in time, 2D animation portraying Amin in both the past and present day, where he tells Jonas his story while also trying to juggle the needs of his partner, who wants to settle down and buy a house, with his desire to repay the siblings who gave up so much for him by succeeding academically and in his career, something which requires post-doc time in the U.S.  This animation is colorful, Amin’s facial hair styled like the zigzag of Charlie Brown’s shirt, his head lying against a Persian carpet as he talks, suggesting a therapy session; as is the portrayal of Amin finding a friend during passage which lands him in Copenhagen while that friend is sent to Zurich.  Times of trauma, like that horrible water crossing or the suggested fate of a terrified girl in the back of a Moscow police van, are depicted in impressionistic black and white.

The film wraps in two locations, one depicting Amin’s reunion with siblings in Stockholm which is funny and features a brilliant, moving surprise.  The second returns to present day Copenhagen to catch us up with Amin’s present day relationship, Rasmussen ending in live action color, his footage depicting joy and peace.  “Flee” is both a filmmaker’s gift to a friend and that friend’s unburdening of long held secrets, both in service to empathy for refugees.

Robin's Review: B

Neon opened "Flee" in select theaters in 2021.  For playdates, click here.