When Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen set out to chronicle the amazing life story of his friend Amin (his name has been changed for the film), he could have relied on traditional documentary formats. Presented in any way, Amin's terrifying tale of fleeing Afghanistan as a refugee would prove compelling. But Rasmussen made the bold decision to use animation to tell of Amin's journey, and it's more than paid off, as Flee is a remarkable piece of filmmaking.
Rasmussen and Amin met in high school. Being a gay refugee from Afghanistan, Amin stood out. He became good friends with Rasmussen, but always kept details of his prior life to himself. At some point, he agreed to open up to Rasmussen and that's how the film is structured. And despite using animation, Rasmussen does give a nod to the traditional documentary. Flee opens with Amin's first interview. We see Rasmussen trying to frame Amin's head for the shot and we see a clapboard mark the interview.
Amin's journey begins in the late eighties. Civil war between the communists and mujahideen sees Amin's father taken from the family home, never to be seen again. Amin's mother, brother and sisters flee to Moscow, Russia being the only state which will admit them, and then only on a tourist visa. The family arrive in a Moscow on the verge of collapse. Food shortages and corrupt, vodka-swilling cops make daily life a struggle. Amin's older brother, who lives in Sweden, arrives to rent the family a flat. The brother will return to Sweden and arrange to pay traffickers to transport Amin's family out of Russia. It will take a while: Amin's brother works as a cleaner and will have to save thousands of dollars to pay the people smugglers.
Life in Moscow alternates between dangerous and boring. The streets are risky, Amin's family lack valid papers and must pay off the police to avoid detention; in their flat, there's little to do but watch television. Amin, a restless teenager, is also coming to terms with his sexuality, which he feels he must hide from his family. It's a contrast to the present day, which we also learn about, where Amin is a successful post-graduate student and lives a comfortable life with his Danish partner. Back in Moscow, eventually, money is procured and the family, placing their lives in the hands of human traffickers, can attempt the journey to Europe.
Although primarily told through animation, interspersed throughout the film is archival news footage. It's a clever technique, lending credibility to Amin's account. The animation itself is also pleasing: it's stylish and low-key, reflecting the precarity of Amin's journey. A later scene in the film sees Amin and another refugee in the back of a van being smuggled out of Russia, all while they listen to Roxette's Joyride on a Walkman, a song that was playing in the background for carefree youth all over the world at the time.
Amin's story is one of countless others. But Rasmussen's approach to telling it helps it come alive, making it vivid and personal. And the use of animation is no mere gimmick, it tells the story in a way a traditional documentary simply couldn't. Flee is a documentary that's enlightening, absorbing and well worth your time.