Review: ‘Flee,’ starring Amin Nawabi

December 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Amin Nawabi in “Flee” (Image courtesy of Neon)

“Flee”

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

In Danish, Dari and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Afghanistan, Denmark, Russia, Estonia and Sweden, the animated documentary “Flee” features a group of Middle Eastern people and white European people (in animated form) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A real-life Afghan man, who happens to be gay and living in Denmark, tells the harrowing story of what he and his family have experienced as refugees. 

Culture Audience: “Flee” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unconventional and emotionally impactful movies about the Afghan refugee crisis.

Jonas Poher Rasmussen and Amin Nawabi in “Flee” (Image courtesy of Neon)

There have been many documentaries and news reports about the devastating traumas experienced by Afghan refugees and other people affected by war and political unrest in Afghanistan. But “Flee” is perhaps one of the most unforgettable and emotionally moving accounts that someone can see in a movie. At first glance, it might seem that telling this story in the format of an animated movie might lessen the impact, but it does not. In many ways, it increases the impact because animation can do things that actors and real-life locations cannot do in a recreation. Animation can add visuals to enhance the tone and meaning of the storytelling.

“Flee” (directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen) uses a real-life audio interview of a Syrian refugee named Amin Nawabi (which is an alias) telling his life story, and the movie recreates what he says through animation. Based on what he says in the interview, Nawabi was born in the early 1980s. He did not want to appear on camera for the documentary, and he did not want to use his real name, out of lingering fear that he and his family members would be targeted for persecution. And so, Rasmussen suggested that the story be told through animation.

“Flee” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize. The movie also made the rounds at several other international film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and DOC NYC. “Flee” has gotten overwhelmingly positive responses at every film festival where it has been. It’s the type of movie that audiences will most likely discover through recommendations, rather than through a flashy marketing campaign.

At the time of the documentary interviews for “Flee,” Nawabi (who is openly gay) was living in Demark’s capital city of Copenhagen and was engaged to marry his Danish boyfriend Kasper, who is occasionally heard in parts of the movie. Nawabi and Kasper were also looking for a new place to live in Copenhagen. The movie includes Nawabi’s account of his “coming out” journey as a gay man in environments where homophobia is rampant and often sanctioned by the government.

Rasmussen has known Nawabi since they were teenagers who went to the same high school. They met when Rasmussen was 15, and Nawabi was living in a foster home in “my sleepy Danish hometown,” according the Rasmussen’s director’s statement in the production notes for “Flee.” Rasmussen can be heard asking some questions in “Flee” during the interview process.

The rest of the voices in the movie are actors portraying the people who are talked about in Nawabi’s narration. Other names have been changed to protect people’s privacy and identities. All of this is explained in the beginning of the movie, so that audiences know that although the names have been changed, and actors are providing most of the voices, it’s a true story based on a real person’s narrative account.

“Flee” begins with Rasmussen asking Nawabi: “What does ‘home’ mean to you?” Nawabi answers, “Home? It’s someplace safe. Somewhere you know you can stay, and you don’t have to move on. It’s not someplace temporary.” It’s that feeling of permanent safety that Nawabi says he has been seeking for most of his life so far.

Nawabi begins by talking about his earliest childhood memories when he was living in Kabul, Afghanistan. He describes being the youngest child in his family and being raised by a loving and attentive mother. His older siblings are brothers Saif and Abbas and sisters Fahima and Sabia. Amin remembers that, as early as 3 or 4 years old, he would wear his sisters’ nightgowns in public. “I think I always had a tendency to be a little bit different,” Amin says.

In “Flee,” the voice actors that portray the family members are Daniel Karimyar (the voice of Amin, ages 9 to 11); Fardin Mijdzadeh (the voice of Amin, ages 15 to 18); Milad Eskandari (the voice of Saif, at age 8); Elaha Faiz (the voice of Fahima, ages 13 to 18); Zahra Mehrwaz (the voice of Fahima, at age 28); and Sadia Faiz (the voice of Sabia, ages 16 to 26). Many of the voice actors in the cast are listed as “Anonymous” in the end credits. It’s probably an indication that they also fear retribution for being involved in telling this story.

Amin’s father Akhtar Nawabi was a pilot, but he died tragically. He was killed because he was considered to be a threat to the Communist government, according to Amin. He also says that his mother told him that Ahktar was one of 3,000 people who were rounded up in a day raid and imprisoned. Most of the people didn’t make it out alive from their imprisonment.

According to what Amin’s mother told him, Akhtar was expecting this raid. Akhtar’s family was able to visit him in jail. But then, three months later, he disappeared and was never seen alive again. The family’s life was never the same. And things continued to get worse for them.

“Flee” intersperses the animation with occasional real-life archival footage of news events going on during the times that are described by Amin in his story, which is told in chronological order. There’s disturbing footage of the Taliban invading villages in Afghanistan. There’s also footage of then-Afghanistan president Mohamad Najibullah saying that Afghanistan could be the U.S.’s next Vietnam if the U.S. chooses to interfere in the conflict. (Najibullah was assassinated in 1996.)

Under all of this chaos and strife, Amin and his mother were forced to separate from the rest of the family, and they both fled to Moscow together in the early 1990s. The rest of Amin’s story is a painful and horrifying account of long family separations; living in poverty; and being detained, shunned or incarcerated for being refugees. Amin also details Abbas’ struggles to earn enough money to pay for human traffickers to smuggle family members over certain borders, with the hope of having everyone reunited. Fahima and Sabia experienced nightmarish abuse from evil and corrupt human traffickers.

The Nawabi family’s journey separates them and takes them down different paths in various countries, such as Russia, Estonia, Sweden and Denmark. There’s a part of the story where Amin confesses that in order to get through certain national borders, he had to lie and say that all of his immediate family members are dead. He fears that this lie will come back to haunt him and might affect his current immigration status.

Although this story is told primarily in an animation format, there’s no mistaking the real rollercoaster of emotions that can be heard in Amin’s voice when he tells the story. The wonderfully expressive animation also conveys the emotions of the characters. The voice actors also do an admirable job in their roles.

At times, the interview setting is recreated, as Amin is shown being so overwhelmed when telling his story, he has to lie down on a carpet at some point, just like a therapy patient lying down on a couch during a therapy session. Because make no mistake: The interview does start to be like a therapy session, with a lot of raw emotions and excruciating memories.

Although there’s so much sadness in Amin’s personal story, there is also some joy. His experiences with coming out as gay weren’t easy, but he describes finding acceptance about his sexuality in some unexpected places. Amin says he knew he was gay since he was about 5 or 6 years old. One of his earliest celebrity crushes was actor Jean-Claude Van Damme.

One of the funniest parts of the movie is how Amin describes his family’s surprising reaction when he told them that he’s gay. He also talks about what it was like to live in a country for the first time where he didn’t have to worry about being arrested for being gay. And, of course, Amin finding true love with Kasper is an indication that this documentary is not completely depressing.

Like all relationships, there are some challenges in Amin and Kasper’s romance. During the making of this documentary, Amin (who is highly educated) was invited by a Princeton University professor to complete Amin’s post-doctoral studies at Princeton. Therefore, Amin and Kasper had to have a long-distance relationship for a while. It took a toll on their romance, and it tested the strength of their commitment to each other.

“Flee” is not the most technically dazzling animated movie you’ll ever see. The movie is not a fun-filled adventure, like most animated films are. However, “Flee” is one of the best animated films you’ll ever see, because the true story behind it is so powerfully moving, it will have an impact on you that you will never forget.

Neon released “Flee” in select U.S. cinemas on December 3, 2021.