When we think about Afghanistan, we might think about it in terms of borders. The gateway between Asia and Europe, it is a forever contested land of great strategic value. Modern history suggests it’s unconquerable, a place where you go to win battles and lose wars: The British tried to make the land a Kingdom; the Soviets tried to make the land Socialist; the Americans tried to make the land Democratic. Nobody ever wins. It is a near inhospitable land of war and strife. You don’t blame anyone for fleeing, or for the consistent refugee pipeline Afghanistan has produced. How could we blame anyone? Conscripted to fight for more wars, perhaps the best thing anyone can do about Afghanistan is to flee in peace, which goes both for its residents and invaders.
Fleeing a war torn country, naturally, is harder than it sounds. Harder than that word sounds. Flee. One word, one syllable, to capture such dramatic action in language. To flee: to run away from a place or a situation of danger. Young Amin fled Afghanistan. Amin’s father went to war, the Mujahideen seized Kabul in a blood soaked civil war, and it was time for Amin and his brother, sisters, and mother to flee.
They traced international borders for a while before landing in Moscow. From one hot political zone to another, Communism had just ended in Russia, and all the cops were crooked. Amin’s family didn’t have any papers. His brother scrounged up what little money he could for their survival and to ship the family out to Europe. His sisters barely made it alive. Soon to follow, his brother, mother, and himself, would make their own traumatic passage.
All of this is true. That’s what the movie says. When Amin safely reached Denmark as a young boy he struck up a friendship with Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Now, as adults, Amin wants to tell his friend the true story of what happened. The film, then, exists as a conversation between friends about the truths of the refugee experience.
Genres also have borders. Flee wants to cross and liberate them. As an animated documentary, like Waltz with Bashir (2008), where form and function meet to protect identities and produce intriguing art. The film gets to do both. It is a technical and public way to process trauma and we’re lucky enough to be audience to such a beautiful and naturalistic conversation. It is never a documentary interview. The film is always a loving dialogue between friends who have met later in life to fill in some holes about who Amin really is and where he came from.
When Amin got to Denmark, he said the Mujahideen killed his family. People around him spun tall tales about him: “he walked all the way from Afghanistan.” As a self preserving defense, Amin would never set the record straight. Now he gets to tell us his brave story and outline what it was like being a refugee, but also coming of age and also realizing your homosexuality, on top of everything else. It’s an internally seeking, bold documentary, that took a lot of tender care and trust to produce. A rarity not just in its formal border-defying functions but also in just how moving and special this young man’s story was, how much he sacrificed, what he gave up just to live a life.
With elegant fluidity Flee coheres both as a documentary and as an animation. It never softens the brutality of the image: sometimes it cuts to shocking real life newsreels of tragedy. It never betrays its form, either: the animated style is consistently drawn, sketched delicately with uniform shape and purpose. It’s expressive and sometimes pretty, but always engaging.
The second great refugee picture of 2021, Flee joins Limbo in creating outsider stories about people just looking safe harbor. It comes at an interesting time in Afghan history, acutely aware that it lands amidst relevant current events, while always telling an internal, personal story, at a time folks might feel warmly about approaching this subject specifically. Flee is a word and a movie that may only have one syllable, but it’s barriers are infinitely open, and welcoming.