VIFF 2021 Review: Flee

Written by Patrick Hao

85/100

Flee tells us a story in a traditional sense. Amin Nawabi, not the real name of the real Afghan refugee who is the subject of this documentary, sits down in front of the camera to tell us his story. His story is harrowing, inspiring, funny, and scary, and it’s hard to ascertain if he is being entirely truthful. 

Swedish director Jonas Poher Ramussen lets Nawabi tell his story in front of the camera, visualizing the events unfurling from his with 2D animation. This also serves the purpose of keeping Nawabi identity a secret. Ramussen and Nawabi both met when they were teens in Denmark. The film benefits from this intimacy as it allows Nawabi to be candid, or at least the veneer of candidness. 

Like most oral stories, Nawabi story veers through tangents. At one moment he is talking about the terrifying threat of the Taliban. Next, Nawabi is expressing the crush he had on Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport. The animation recreates the events of Nawabi’s life and archival footage is interspersed to give the real-life context surrounding his situation. 

His story starts in Afghanistan during the Cold War in the 1980s. As tension boiled over between the Russians and Afghanis, causing the rise of the Taliban, Nawabi and his family were forced to escape. This is where the story begins its twists and turns as Nawabi becomes unsure of which truths to tell. What is clear is the immense sense of weight, guilt, and pressure that he faced in his life. Using animation like this has been done before in documentaries like Waltz with Bashir and biographical fiction like Persepolis. Ramussen does not necessarily do anything different from those films but utilizes it to its full extent to build a compelling suspenseful narrative. It also adds color to a story that could be too heavy a burden if just a traditional straight to the camera talking head. 

A lot of these refugee crisis movies seem to focus on the harrowing experiences of it all. These monolithic portrayals to those who cannot fathom to understand can be so foreign that it is easy to turn away from. But Ramussen’s approach allows the gamut of human emotions. Yes, the constant hiding is a fearful experience, but the movie shines when there are moments of levity like a classic coming-of-age tale. The film explores the intersectionality of Nawabi’s existence as a son, as a man, as a homosexual, as a refugee, and, most importantly, as a human. 

With this approach, Ramussen invites his viewers to be empathetic rather than simply sympathetic. This approach also makes Nawabi a subject for exploration rather than exploitation. Flee is a clear example of the importance of hearing stories straight from the mouth. It does not matter if there are tall tales, just the humanity underneath. Flee gives us emotional truths which in and of itself is beautiful.

Flee Trailer

Flee was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

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