(Denmark/France/Sweden/Norway, 90 min.)
Dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Programme: TIFF Docs
The best film of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival could be the best TIFF 2021. Eight months after Flee was crowned Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize winner, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s stunning film retains its power and rewards repeat viewings.
Flee documents the unfilmable. Riveting testimony by Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym) fuels this odyssey of survival and acceptance. The 36-year-old subject recalls to his long-time friend, filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the story of how he came to Denmark. It includes a tense journey in which his family escaped Afghanistan and the Mujahideen in 1990s, eventually landing in Russia. They survived off the grid once their visas expired. Being refugees who were forced to abandon their lives, Amin’s family could hardly have been expected to document their account. The same goes for the dangerous trips with human traffickers: one simply can’t bring cameras into the forests at the dead of night or into cargo holds of rickety ships.
What Amin can do, however, is remember them. He tells his story to Rasmussen in vivid detail. He recalls aspects of his life he doesn’t even dare share with his fiancé. Flee uses the audio of Amin’s testimony as a springboard to animate the experience of surviving in liminal spaces. It visualizes the world of people like Amin for whom being seen, observed, or documented can mean the difference between life and death. Flee transports audiences to dark corners of the world one never hopes to see in real life. But there are also moments of great catharic joy and beauty as Amin understands the meaning of love in the unlikeliest places.
Moreover, this animation creates a safe space for Amin as the therapeutic interview sessions—Rasmussen has Amin lie on a bed and tell his narrative with his eyes closed—let him fully embrace and celebrate his identity as a gay man. His memories of getting hot for posters of Jean-Claude Van Damme are a highlight, while the poppy soundtrack delivers an earworm discotheque. Flee is the story of someone who was in hiding while hiding, carefully masking every aspect of his soul from the family members who shared a stake in his survival.
Comparisons to Ari Folman’s 2008 hit Waltz with Bashir are inevitable for this animated documentary, but Flee more than capably meets the bar set by its predecessors. This film will and should be studied for years to come. It’s a sensitive and urgent testament to refugee experiences. Moreover, the animation preserves the subject’s privacy and security while evoking questions of absence and erasure. Most compelling, however, are the animated interludes that offer poetic interpretations of memories that Amin can’t articulate: the violence, the trauma, and the pain. These moments are most effective because they call upon the viewers to imagine the journey in their own minds.
Flee has its Canadian premiere at TIFF 2021 and will be released later this year.
A version of this review was previously published during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.