The relatively warm welcome given by Western Europe to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion has been contrasted with the plight of similar victims of conflict from Africa, Asia and the Arab-speaking regions. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary Flee is a memoir of one such refugee from Afghanistan, who articulates what it means to lose country, family, roots and the very idea of home.
The 2021 Danish production was nominated at this year’s Oscars in three categories – Best Documentary Feature, Best International Film and Best Animated Feature, though it did not win any awards. Did the largely American Oscar voters avoid rewarding a film that indirectly reminded them of their country’s abandonment of Afghanistan? Or were voters looking for something more upbeat than a harrowing film that lays bare the realities of the refugee experience?
Flee refuses to compromise on its subject matter, nor does it hold back on the agony that travels with the displaced. The film is based on an interview between Rasmussen and a man who calls himself Amin Nawabi. The name is false, in order to protect the interviewee and his family members. Animation proves to be a perfect shield for Amin as well as an inspiration for Rasmussen and his team to push the boundaries of the filmmaking form.
Rasmussen’s conversations with Amin help retrace his journey from Afghanistan to Denmark. In Kabul, Amin gazes lovingly at playing cards with the faces of Hindi films actors (including Anil Kapoor and Vivek Mushran) but has a special corner in his heart for Belgian martial arts star Jean Claude Van Damme. Amin is gay, but he hasn’t acknowledged it just yet.
The turmoil in Afghanistan in the 1980s fuelled by the United States and the former Soviet Union reach Amin’s door. Amin flees Afghanistan with his mother and three siblings in the late 1980s, as Mohammad Najibullah’s Soviet Union-backed government falls to local rebels. The family finds itself in Moscow in the middle of another severely disruptive regime change. The Soviet Union itself has crumbled and the Communist state has been dismantled. The supermarkets have empty shelves and crime and corruption rule the streets.
The attempt of Amin and his family to leave Moscow and move to Sweden, where Amin’s brother lives, is marked by intense hardship, overwhelming fear and painful memories. This is no camera-friendly story of momentary pain segueing smoothly to happy gain. Instead, Amin’s voiceover is a reminder of the self-erasure that refugees must adopt in order to relocate themselves.
The English version of the Danish film is available on ZEE5, as part of its Zee Special Projects. The platform deserves kudos for bringing a difficult, but also different film, to Indian viewers.
Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau provide the voices of Amin and Rasmussen in the English version. The actors also serve as executive producers. Amin’s incredible journey comes vividly alive in Ahmed’s moving narration, which is filled with restrained emotion and moments of black humour.
Archival news footage that is interspersed with the animation lends authenticity to Amin’s narrative. Flashbacks to traumatic events are rendered in wispy drawings of the bare outlines of human figures. Reduced to their most basic selves, these tremulous shapes convey in a few brush-strokes the overwhelming nature of the refugee experience. The intensity of the 89-minute film makes it hard to watch at times, but its honesty is equally unforgettable.