In America, I don’t think we really understand refugees except in the macro sense of the word. We understand that they’re people fleeing some sort of violence or oppression, and occasionally we see footage of them gathered into camps of some kind. From there, they’re frequently politicized as an “other” that may intrude on our way of life and they should perhaps go back to where they came from because they’re not our problem. But it’s hard to carry such a heartless point of view, especially after watching Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s powerful animated documentary Flee. The film has Afghan refugee Amin Nawabi telling his story for the first time, and while it is as harrowing as one might expect, it is not without its humanity and nuance. It removes the macro view and stereotyping of some threatening other and puts forward an individual who moved through a non-existent system where they managed to survive brutal conditions no one should be forced into. Flee is not a punishing viewing experienced, but it demands our attention as it provides definition to a world those of us living in comfort fail to understand.
Amin was a boy living in Kabul when his family was forced to flee during the Civil War in 1989. As the Taliban closed in on their city, Amin, his brother, his sisters, and his mother, went to Moscow as Russia was the only place that would take refugees from the crisis (side note: Flee doesn’t need to get too deep into the specifics of the geopolitical history here, but they exist at the periphery and are absolutely damning, especially towards the U.S., who supplied Mujahadeen fighters and then shrugged away the consequences; Amin is the human face of the consequences of global callousness). From there, Amin and his family tried to survive a new Russia where communism had fallen, and rampant corruption had taken its place. Amin, through his conversations with Jonas, talks about his attempts to get out of Moscow with his family and the struggles he had to face along the way coupled with his own coming-of-age as a closeted homosexual.
Amin is a conflict of stories, and even he seems unsure of which one he should tell. There’s the story of his childhood, the story of his flight, and the story that he’s been expected to tell as a refugee. Early on, he tells Jonas that he tried to tell the truth to an abusive ex-boyfriend, who would lord that truth over Amin as a threat to out him and his family and send them back to Afghanistan. Through Amin’s story, we see life on a wire, a balancing act of needing to live every day and simply existing in purgatory where you have no home. Hearing Amin’s story, we must reconsider our notions of “home” and how we take such a concept for granted because it’s never been endangered and likely will never be. People don’t “flee” the U.S. or other first-world countries; we relocate because we’re privileged enough to have such choices in our destinations.
You could really only tell this story through animation because it feels like the most honest way to translate Amin’s story to a visual medium. Yes, one could write it down and then get actors, but Flee feels more powerful when it’s always coming through Amin’s voice and his conversations with Jonas. Animation, which allows Rasmussen to convey memories in a way that feels more authentic than live-action dramatization, is the ideal medium for this story and it brings us closer to Amin and his journey, especially in its more emotionally abstract moments where truth and fiction blur as a matter of survival.
I’ve never seen a film quite like Flee (the closest in recent memory is Waltz with Bashir), and it’s a movie I haven’t been able to shake. It is haunting and it should haunt us. When we ignore refugees, we leave them to a system of exploitation and greater danger created by our own indifference. I’m so grateful Amin decided to tell his story because I believe through Flee it will create converts to people who want to find ways to help refugees, who see them no longer as people huddled in camps but as individuals with hopes, dreams, and lives that are worth living. Amin isn’t saintly or some superhuman; if anything, Flee makes his story feel both typical and unique. Not everyone got as lucky as Amin if “luck” means getting to live to adulthood and become a successful person. But the sacrifices asked upon a kid are mind-boggling, and he never should have had to make them in the first place.
I’m sure some will label Flee as liberal propaganda because anything that seeks to help the downtrodden can be labeled as liberal propaganda. Some will always want to demonize refugees because it’s easy to exploit them for fear and because they don’t have a voice. That’s why Flee is so essential: it is that voice. It’s that voice made clear and undeniable with all its complexities. It’s not an easy story, but we weren’t promised simple narratives. Flee gives us the truth and the hard road it takes to get there. It’s a beautiful, uncompromising film, and I’m so grateful for it.
Flee is slated for release in the U.S. in 2021.
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