Whether you want to place it as a documentary or animated film, Flee is just a fantastic experience of a very humanist picture.
Flee (2021) Review By Mark McPherson
Published on March 16, 2022
Rating 4.5 /5
Somewhere between documentary and drama, Flee exists as an animated film that attempts to capture the anxieties and desperation of finding comfort in an uncomfortable world. Similar to Waltz with Bashir, the film features Amin Nawabi telling his story of how he grew up in the 20th century and into the 21st. His unorthodox lifestyle takes him from being a kid in Afghanistan to a refugee in Denmark. The result is an incredibly poignant picture of homosexuality, refugees, discrimination, and love.
Amin is interviewed for this film in interview sessions that keep him in animated form. Though initially open to these interviews, Amin feels very exposed. He finds that there are some things he’s not comfortable with talking about in his past. It takes a few interviews before he finds himself ready to be open. As his tale soon reveals, he describes his childhood as a turbulent one. While he tried to subvert gender stereotypes, he struggled to reside in a nation at war. He was used to men being pushed into the military and never coming back.
Soon, Amin and his family escape to Russia but reside in a totalitarian state. Touchstones of the country such as the opening of the first McDonald’s carry a bitter nostalgia. He recalls that day and how Russian authorities hassled him and his brother into a police van. By the judgment of an officer, they were able to get out of the van. They left behind a woman who was taken for a reason not explained. It’s one of many regrets from Amin’s past.
There’s great empathy within Amin’s story as he and his family find a means of constantly escaping turmoil. They try to find a way out of Russia and have to rely on human traffickers to leave. Many attempts are foiled and tragically cut short, as when an escape by boat is hindered by a cruise ship that calls the authorities. Secret police soon threaten the family that their time in the apartment becomes a mixture of boredom with soap opera and terror for whoever may be knocking that day.
Eventually, Amin is able to escape. He meets another boy and finds himself connecting over music. The discovers a nightclub and is able to better get in touch with being gay. There’s this freeing nature that builds in Amin, right up to the present where he’s trying to find a new house with his husband. It is quite a stirring and important tale that touches on more than one aspect of a world that is difficult to live in, despite the many signs of progress that have been made since.
The animation of Flee is very much an indie affair. A team of 10 animators composed some of the most lyrical and ambient-infused animations that perfectly communicate tones of the gentle and horrific. It really brings to life such memories Amin has about his grandmother talking about death in dreams in drowning, relating to fears of taking passage by sea via human traffickers. The animation is certainly limited, especially during Amin’s many moments with his husband that are natural. There’s a stiffness to them but also a very emotional edge where the keyframes perfectly communicate the slower pacing of the present that we’d want to cherish.
Whether you want to place it as a documentary or animated film, Flee is just a fantastic experience of a very humanist picture. It’s beautiful and tragic while letting the audience into another world, using the animation medium to convey something that mere archival footage and talking heads couldn’t muster. Clips like that are present but the real meat of this story and the emotional core is where animation steps up to the plate. It’s a brilliant reminder that is a medium that need not be bound by the fantastical. Animation can tell tales of human drama and this is one of the best in recent years.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.