Film, Animation
4 out of 5 stars
Photograph: Sundance Film Festival

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

The sorrows and horrors of the migrant experience are laid bare in a richly moving animation with a queer dimension

Despite crossing half the globe, Amin Nawabi, the Afghan refugee at the heart of this deeply compassionate, mournful and strikingly original animation, 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 passing cities through truck windows. Always on the move, always scared, always wondering what comes next, Amin’s reality is a bruising succession of unbearable choices – mostly made by other people.

It’s one of the many paradoxes in this gut-punch adult animation – a worthy heir to Waltz with Bashir and Cartoon Saloon’s The Breadwinner – where the prices of freedom is frequently temporary imprisonment. Flee animates interviews between the real 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 his memories of growing up in middle-class Kabul, then fleeing when the Mujahideen take over: first to Russia, then the Baltic.

There’s just the tiniest disconnect between the voiceovers and animation, mainly because no recording studio was involved. It lends a rough-around-the-edges quality that serves only to deepen the pathos by offering a constant reminder that everything you’re seeing happened, that all of the characters are real. The grim mechanics of people smuggling – and the ugly, profiteering 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 techniques and occasional news footage of the Afghan war and Perestroika-era Russia.

Never extraneous, Flee’s smaller details make this true-life story buzz with life. They’re 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 (animated ‘80s JCVD smoulders in a way the real one never quite managed), or 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 and of past demons being confronted. Flee, which is executive produced by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who will also voice the leads in the English-dubbed version), offers a penetrating insight into the psychology of the migrant experience. Shame, Amin admits of one jaw-dropping encounter with an ocean liner full of snapping tourists, is a lingering companion. This remarkable film will have a similar effect.


Release details

Cast and crew

Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Jonas Poher Rasmussen
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