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A Refugee Song 

"Flee" takes animation to the next level

Sometimes if a film has a lot on its mind, it can get buried under too much thematic weight. Look at something like "Don't Look Up," which I liked a lot more than most, but between the warring tones of comedy, drama, satire and science fiction, and the battle between the ideas of climate change, greedy politicians and tech magnates, a love story, an end-of-the-world adventure and a screed against the post-millennial culture wars, the movie is a bit scattered to say the least.

So when a movie not only manages to have several important points to make, but manages to experiment with the form and structure of motion pictures themselves, then you have something really special and a film that will stand the test of time. The groundbreaking (and history-making) animated documentary thriller, "Flee," stands in the rarified air of a film that takes several different cues from the history of cinema and then manages to make something wholly original.

The basic setup for "Flee" is that filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen interviews his longtime friend Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym) about Nawabi's escape as a child from Afghanistan and his journey through Eastern Europe as a refugee. Nawabi is now planning a marriage with his boyfriend while living in Denmark and finally ready to talk about his harrowing experience as a refugee locked in a tiny hold of a ship, crossing the Baltic Sea with his family, passing across borders through a snowy forest and trying to tamp down his burgeoning homosexuality in a society that would kill him for his preferences.

“Flee” is an unforgettable memoir with animation that lives in your heart forever. - PHOTO COURTESY OF IMDB
  • Photo courtesy of imdb
  • “Flee” is an unforgettable memoir with animation that lives in your heart forever.

As Nawabi relates his story to Rasmussen, the filmmakers animate the telling of his story and combine it with stock footage of Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, creating a dance of intimate catharsis and historical context that gives Nawabi's story resonance and will hopefully build empathy with people lacking any sort of understanding of the immigrant experience.

On top of the absolutely nerve-shredding story of Nawabi's escape from Afghanistan, "Flee" also focuses on Nawabi's struggle with his homosexuality, the way Afghani refugees were treated in Russia in the 1980s and the post-traumatic stress of living somewhere with constantly shifting asylum status. Having all of these heavy themes seen through the lens of animation makes the intensity and sadness bearable, giving the audience a sense of safety as they watch a man barely capable of remembering the meaning of the word.

"Flee" has made history by being the first film in history nominated for Oscars in Best International Feature, Best Documentary Feature and Best Animated Feature simultaneously. It, at the very least, has the Animated award on lock. With its blend of colorful and deceptively simplistic line art and black-and-white charcoal shadings, the animation in "Flee" is just as groundbreaking as its story.

"Flee" stands with "Persepolis" and "Waltz with Bashir" as a truly profound piece of adult animation and manages to make the story of a gay Afghan refugee universal and deeply moving. Films like this are so few and far between, it almost feels like a miracle that we have it. We're lucky Nawabi shared his story and that there is a medium for him to gain the catharsis that he so kindly shares with his audience. A masterpiece, plain and simple.


Dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Grade: A

Now Playing at Tin Pan Theater

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