Despite crossing half the globe, Amin Nawabi, the Afghan refugee at the heart of this deeply compassionate, mournful and strikingly original animated documentary, sees virtually none of it. His world encompasses shipping containers, the dank hulls of rickety boats, grim Estonian prison cells, barely-less-grim Moscow apartments, and snatched glimpses of cities through truck windows. Always on the move, always scared, always wondering what’s next, Amin lives a reality that’s a bruising succession of tough choices – mostly made by other people.
It’s one of the paradoxes in this gut-punch adult animation – a worthy heir to Waltz with Bashir and Cartoon Saloon’s The Breadwinner – that the price of freedom is frequently temporary imprisonment. Flee animates interviews between Amin (a pseudonym) and a Danish friend in his new home, Copenhagen. These sessions are part therapy, part gay coming-of-age memoir (a second, parallel journey Amin has made), part haunting testimonial to a life left behind. They’re recreated via hand-drawn animation, which lends a naturalistic tenor to Amin’s memories of growing up in middle-class Kabul, then fleeing when the mujahideen take over: first to Russia, then the Baltics.
There’s the tiniest disconnect between the voiceovers and animation, mainly because no recording studio was involved. It lends a scrappy quality that only deepens the pathos by offering a constant reminder that everything you’re seeing happened. The grim mechanics of people-smuggling – and the traffickers behind it – are detailed in all their dehumanising sophistication. Here, Danish writer-director Jonas Poher Rasmussen conjures up Amin’s most traumatic memories by switching to charcoal line drawings of figures on the run, blurs of panicked motion. It has a haunting effect in concert with the more traditional animation and real news footage of the Afghan war and Perestroika-era Russia.
The film’s smaller details make this true story buzz with life. They’re Amin’s mental souvenirs of his past: the Anil Kapoor cigarette card and Jean-Claude Van Damme poster that first make him question his sexuality as a boy, the flashing sneakers of a fellow migrant as they’re smuggled across a border by night.
Those moments linger. But beneath their melancholy is a sense of healing. Flee, which was executive produced by Riz Ahmed and Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, offers a penetrating insight into the psychology of the migrant experience. Shame, Amin admits in one jaw-dropping encounter with an ocean liner full of snapping tourists, is a constant companion. This remarkable film will stay with you in a similar way.
In UK cinemas Feb 11.