sundance 2021 - flee
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Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Section: World Documentary Competition

A Danish filmmaker interviews his childhood friend. Nobody knows his story – till now. He starts talking. And reminiscing. And recalling. And reliving. The flashbacks are a beguiling mix of hand-drawn animation, charcoal drawings and archival footage. The world is in transition, but upheaval is his only constant. But “Amin Nawabi” is only his pseudonym. His face must not be revealed. Not because Amin was an undocumented Afghan refugee – he isn’t anymore – but because Amin is queer. Amin is in love. His religion does not recognize homosexuality. 

Most documentaries go to great lengths to protect their subjects. Necessity is the mother of invention: Think silhouette-framing, strategic lighting, voice distortion, and live-action recreations. But Flee turns the art of concealment into a revolutionary cinematic language. Its stylistic choice is also more of a compassionate choice. Its central interview, too, is animated: Jonas and Amin appear in the same medium as Amin’s memories. There is little distinction between the two – the storyteller is inextricably bound to his story.

Reconstructing reality in the visual grammar of dreams is, first and foremost, an ode to the unfilmable nature of trauma. The illusion of performance cannot invoke the demons in Amin’s head. His journey is too personal, too dense, to be staged. Other humans cannot pretend to be him; he has been pretending to be himself for far too long. It is in fact the first time he’s hearing his own voice speak about it: one can only imagine the wounds of his survival. From a Civil war in Kabul to the hostility of post-communist Russia, from the horrors of Baltic asylum to the uncertainty of a Swedish future, Amin’s early life is revealed to be an amalgamation of terminated lifetimes. The idiosyncratic palette of his childhood soon morphs into a darker refugee thriller full of ruthless traffickers and cops – the kind that’s often designed as biographical Oscar bait by Hollywood directors. 

Most documentaries go to great lengths to protect their subjects. Necessity is the mother of invention: Think silhouette-framing, strategic lighting, voice distortion, and live-action recreations. But Flee turns the art of concealment into a revolutionary cinematic language.  

The authenticity of Flee, however, is mirrored in the tone of the interview: informal, honest, curious, therapeutic and, most of all, conversational. The voice isn’t reading from a script; it’s coming from deep within, with pauses, stutters, chuckles and inbuilt regrets. The manufactured texture of the images reiterate the shapelessness of his thoughts. There is no room for superficiality – Flee is a manifestation of his awakening, but also an extension of his subconscious. The hybrid treatment dissolves the loneliness of his exile. Amin’s disclosure – the unveiling of his hidden subtext – is not in the film; it is the film.

More importantly, in context of who Amin is, the documentary’s unique physical identity – defined by the marriage of animation and non-fiction – reflects the profound marriage between Amin’s sexual identity and his cultural identity. Some perceive it to be “unnatural” on paper, but the result is a riveting union of heart and soul. Amin’s long-time partner knows nothing of his previous self; all he and everyone else believes is that Amin was an orphan who emerged as a teen refugee at Copenhagen airport after making a solo escape from Kabul. But the truth is that Amin himself was forced to bury his history for fear of deportation back to Russia – or worse, back to Afghanistan. 

Consequently, having to spend most of his adulthood as a victim takes a psychological toll on Amin’s perception of trust and humanity. It’s one thing to flee, it’s another to flee from yourself. Connecting was never an option. Loving fully was never an option. Opening up was never an option. But the inherent courage of this documentary ensures that blossoming is the only option. 

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