Emotionally compelling, satisfying, and incredibly raw—Flee is all three of these things, which surprised me even more being that its very concept is unconventional and risky. Flee blends the worlds of animation and documentary into a film unlike any I have ever seen before. Amin’s story being told in this fashion makes for some stunning animated visuals that are emboldened by an imaginative sketchiness to convey emotionality. I think one would have to be heartless in order to feel nothing from this heartbreaking film about finding one’s identity in a world without a place to call home.
Boiled down to basics, Flee tells the story of Amin, a refugee from Afghanistan, as he recounts his life’s story through mature adult eyes. He reveals hidden truths and shocking tragedies to a dear friend, the documentarian who has known him for years. From humble beginnings in Kabul, Afghanistan, Amin always knew he was a little different—he liked wearing dresses, was obsessed with Jean-Claude Van Damme, and adored the attention. However, in Afghanistan, there was not even a word for “homosexual,” and it brought shame on the entire family. For years, Amin was forced to keep this aspect of himself hidden, but nevertheless it was a vital aspect of his personality.
Amin’s life was tumultuous indeed thanks to the lack of a place where he felt he belonged. His father, considered a threat to the Afghanistan government, has been missing since 1979 after being rounded up and put in a jail cell, then disappearing shortly after. In the mid-80s as the country goes to war, Amin flees to Moscow, Russia with his family, one of the only places that would actually grant asylum. Even their stay here is anything but peaceful. Fresh after the fall of communism, the supermarkets were empty, and the streets ran rampant with crime and a corrupt police force. Without the stability of normal living and valid papers to stay in Russia, pressures mount for the family to cross to Sweden, where their older brother will await their arrival.
As Amin reveals more about his past life, we are also given a glimpse into his present. At 36 years old, Amin is happily engaged to his longtime boyfriend. The two are at a crossroads in their relationship as they search together for a new home. It is refreshing that in some aspects of Amin’s life, he is a self-built success story, though he feels he owes every drop of his life to the sacrifices of his family. In revealing further details about them that he has never told anyone before (since his ultimate immigration to Copenhagen in Denmark!), Amin is forced to examine his past and the way it has shaped his future.
My favorite aspect of Flee is the way it examines the LGBT angle of it all, accenting each piece of Amin’s story along the way. Hiding his true identity becomes a second nature. He develops a crush on one of the people being smuggled along with him, a cute young man who happily gives him a necklace out of the kindness of his heart. Amin starts to think that being gay is something that can be cured. When he eventually tells those in his family about his sexuality, Flee soars to feel-good tearjerking heights. “There’s nothing to worry about, we always knew,” is a phrase I wish more children growing up in the world were able to hear with ease.
Real footage, including tragic depictions of a country at war, interspersed with the animation flows harmoniously. Down the line, I can easily see Flee being nominated for several Academy Awards (maybe even best picture?), and I look forward to watching it again as English-dubbed by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Perhaps one will have a stronger attachment dependent on their sympathies for immigrants and gay culture. Either way, this empathetic take on Amin’s harrowing true story remains one of 2021’s most effective cinematic offerings.
Flee screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, and heads to theaters from NEON on Friday, December 3rd.