Review: ‘Flee’ Is a Vivid Documentation of Existence on the Run

Human existence is frail and fleeting, yet cherished. When half of the 21st century superpowers are battling the other half with cold hearts and bare hands to grasp that existential victory, the popular philosophical statement ‘existentialism is humanism’ seems like an ideal utopian fever dream. But are we ideal human beings when we discard another living breathing individual on the basis of their ethnicity, religious belief, and sexuality? And what are the ramifications of this utmost audacious oppression towards the marginalised who might survive a scathing attack but endure endless suffering to find their footing in this world of majoritarian seize and hurt?

Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen heartwarmingly manifests the essence of existence in his animated documentary Flee which recently swept several Academy Award nominations including the best international feature – a historical feat for a story that echoes the aftermath of several massacres that history textbooks will never publish.

Flee has Amin Nawabi, an Afghan refugee, at the heart of this strikingly empathetic, mournful and honest film. Amin fled Afghanistan during his childhood and embarked on a seemingly impossible journey defying Kabul’s intolerant political environment, Russian smugglers and the age-old battle against repressed sexuality.

Amin eventually found asylum in Denmark and peace in hindsight. However, on the verge of marrying his fiancé, Amin reflects upon those harrowing experiences to one of his filmmaker friends who documents the memoir. Amin is presented with a conundrum due to some secrets he has kept from his soon-to-be-husband: the scars and scares of being a refugee and how he had to tweak a few facts to lead an established life in a foreign country.

Rasmussen profiles his childhood friend pseudonymously as Amin to protect his identity and remains honest for the rest of it – reflecting pure sentimentalism in every minute.

Despite covering half of the globe, Amin’s subconscious drifts around gas chamber-like shipping containers, fragile ferries, deadly Estonian prison cells, a comparatively-less-deadly but illegal Moscow residency, and fleeting glimpses of cities on the run.

Continuously on the move and at other people’s mercy, always paranoid for the unknown worst to strike, Amin’s reality is a nightmarish succession of unbearable choices – mostly not made by him. The one in his grasp is the one he acts on with fear but also with conviction – the coming to terms with his sexuality in the middle of such a turbulent phase is a sucker punch to the gut. When Amin admits to the doctor that he thinks homosexuality is a curable disease, we see the naiveté of adolescence but also the grit to embrace his identity. Amin has his own victories against the oppressing forces – be it the untamed Baltic waves allegorising the wrath of tyrant dominance or the stigma created by a heteronormative society. Amin survives it all.

Rasmussen portrays Amin’s most traumatic memories by switching to charcoal line drawings of figures in distress, blurs of anxiety-stricken motion. It has a haunting effect in cohorts with more acknowledged animation techniques and occasional real-life news footage of the Afghan civil war and Perestroika-era Russia.

Never irrelevant, Flee’s minute details make this real-life story thrive with emotion. They are Amin’s mental souvenirs of long-buried moments: the Anil Kapoor cigarette card and Jean-Claude Van Damme poster that first make Amin question his sexuality as a boy, or the fellow refugee on the way to Sweden who got him smitten. One of the most heartfelt moments arrive when Amin comes out to his family and gets confronted by his elder brother, Daft Punk’s Veridis Quo plays in the background and Amin knows, he has arrived at his destination.

These moments linger. But beneath their melancholy is a sense of healing and of closure. Flee, produced by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, offers a penetrating vivid insight into the psyche of migrant trauma. And lingers in the subconscious in form of that coveted redemption every oppressed individual is dreaming from a seemingly dead-end: Flee to a better reality.

Rajanmoy Adhikary is pursuing a Film and TV essentials scholarship course from Yellowbrick/NYU in association with Indiewire and aspiring to be a feature writer for films/TV

Featured Image: Neon