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.

Review: ‘The Outpost,’ starring Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones and Orlando Bloom

July 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Caleb Landry Jones (second from right) and Scott Eastwood (far right) in “The Outpost” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“The Outpost”

Directed by Rod Lurie

Culture Representation: Based on real events and taking place in northern Afghanistan in 2009, the war drama “The Outpost” features a racially diverse (white, African American, Asian, Latino and one Native American) and almost-all male cast portraying members of the U.S. Army, Afghanistan natives and Pakistani Taliban fighters.

Culture Clash: During the war in Afghanistan, a group of U.S. Army soldiers stationed at a remote outpost come under attack by Taliban terrorists.

Culture Audience: “The Outpost” will appeal to primarily to people who like war movies that realistically portray the terrifying battles and deep emotional toll that war can take on people who fight on the front lines.

Orlando Bloom in “The Outpost” (Photo by Simon  Varsano/Screen Media Films)

Based on a true story, the effective drama “The Outpost” recreates the Afghanistan War’s Battle of Kamdesh (also known as the Battle of Outpost Keating) that took place on October 3, 2009, in such brutal and realistic detail, that some viewers watching it might feel as if they’ve gone through an emotional war zone just by seeing this movie. The battle doesn’t take place until halfway through this 123-minute movie. But by then, viewers get a sense of what life in the outpost was like for those involved before some of their lives were tragically lost.

Capably directed by Rod Lurie, “The Outpost” begins with this on-screen text to give viewers a historical view of the story in the movie: “In 2006, the U.S. Army established a series of outposts in northern Afghanistan to promote counterinsurgency. The intent was to connect with the locals and to stop the flow of weapons and Taliban fighters from Pakistan.”

One of those outposts was PRT Kamdesh, a relatively small station that was located at the bottom of a valley surrounded by the Hindu Kush Mountains. The location was remote and an easy “sitting duck” target if attackers wanted to use the mountain range as the perfect position to fire guns and bombs down below. And that’s exactly what happened when about 400 Taliban fighters ambushed the approximately 54 U.S. Army men who were stationed at the outpost.

Before that happened, the movie shows the different personalities of several of the Army men at the outpost, as well as the culture that the Army was trying to establish while these U.S. military personnel were living among Afghan civilians. There are multiple scenes of the captain of the team trying to keep the peace with an increasingly frustrated and suspicious group of locals, led by Afghan elders, who are slightly appeased when they are offered money by the U.S. military to help build schools in the area.

Paranoia and tensions run high at the outpost and the nearby communities. The U.S. soldiers capture a young Afghan man taking photos of the outpost, and they temporarily hold him for questioning. The local Afghan people consider it to be a kidnapping.

And although U.S. military men at the outpost have Afghan men helping with translating and acting as lookouts, many of the locals start to feel disrespected by the American soldiers. Some of the soldiers are arrogantly skeptical of a local Afghan man who keeps warning them that Taliban fighters will soon come to attack the outpost.

Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson adapted the movie’s screenplay from the nonfiction book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” which was written by CNN anchor Jake Tapper. (Tapper is also one of the executive producers of “The Outpost” movie. The end of the movie also includes clips of CNN interviews that Tapper did with some of the surviving soldiers.)

There are numerous military men in the story, but some are written as more distinct than others. Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha (played by Scott Eastwood) is the quintessential “good guy” soldier who, for the most part, gets along with everyone. Staff Sergeant Ty Carter (played by Caleb Landry Jones) is the group’s misfit loner.

First Lieutenant Benjamin Keating (played by Orlando Bloom) is the no-nonsense leader of the outpost. He expresses his intentions by telling his team, “We need to keep a good relationship with the locals. Respect keeps us safe.”

Another example of Keating’s leadership skills shows that he can be tough but merciful. In one scene, Keating admonishes a young soldier named Ed Faulkner (played by Will Attenborough) for smoking too much hashish.  Faulkner denies that he’s addicted to hashish, but Keating disagrees. Rather than docking Faulkner’s salary (because Keating says that money eventually doesn’t mean much to soldiers at war), Keating demotes Faulkner to the ranking of private, and tells Faulkner that this is his last chance to clean up his act.

As with any large group of people who work together, there is camaraderie and there is conflict. During the good times, the men party together and share stories of their loved ones at home. Tension-filled arguments sometimes turn into physical fights, such as when hotheaded Staff Sergeant Justin T. Gallegos (played by Jacob Scipio) angrily kicks and pushes down Private First Class Zorias Yunger (played by Alfie Stewart) for shooting bullets too close to Gallegos’ head.

And sometimes the cruelty to each other is emotional, such as when Carter is ridiculed and disrespected by some of his fellow soldiers for being a little bit of an oddball. (Carter’s eccentric ways include wearing shorts during combat.) Stephan Mace (played by Chris Born) is one of the soldiers who gives Carter a hard time.

A lot of things happen in “The Outpost” can’t be described in detail because it’s spoiler information for people who don’t know the whole story. However, it should come as no surprise that several of the men don’t make it out alive. The Taliban attack is portrayed in horrifying detail, but even among the terror, there’s a lot of inspiring bravery.

As the “misfit” Carter, Jones is the clear standout actor in the movie, particularly in the second half of the film. The dialogue in “The Outpost” isn’t very memorable, but some of the scenes were obviously written as an admirable effort to show these military men as individuals, instead of blending them all together as a generic group.

For example, there’s a sequence that shows all of the men calling home, and viewers see snippets of each and every one of their conversations. It’s a great way of showing their individuality and to give a glimpse into their personal lives. And there are small touches of humor in this serious movie, such as when a soldier holds a photo of a special female and tells another soldier that when he gets home, he can’t wait to hold and kiss her—and then it’s revealed that the female in the photo is the soldier’s dog.

Lorenzo Senatore’s immersive cinematography for “The Outpost” also makes it one of the best war movies released in 2020. In addition, the film makes a bold statement at the end by not doing the war-movie cliché conclusion of showing people being awarded medals, but instead by showing how one of the surviving heroes is wracked with survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people skip watching the end credits of a movie, but it’s worth sticking around for all of the end credits for “The Outpost.” And for viewers who get teary-eyed during realistic war movies, it might help to have some tissues nearby.

Screen Media Films released “The Outpost” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on July 3, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘The Kill Team’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgård in "The Kill Team"
Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgård in “The Kill Team” (Photo by Manolo Pavon/A24)

“The Kill Team”

Directed by Dan Krauss

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

In 2013, “The Kill Team” (directed by Dan Krauss) won the Tribeca Film Festival jury prize for Best Documentary Feature for its chilling chronicle of the Maywand District murders scandal, in which members of the U.S. Army were arrested in 2010 for murdering unarmed, innocent civilians during the war in Afghanistan. Krauss has revisited the story—this time, by writing and directing the dramatic, scripted film also titled “The Kill Team,” which is based on real-life events but using fictional names of the real people involved. Whereas the documentary (which was released by The Orchard in 2014) spends a lot of time explaining why this tragedy happened, the scripted feature film does something even more disturbing: It shows how it happened in the first place.

“The Kill Team” documentary, which includes interviews with several of the soldiers involved, takes place entirely after the arrests of the soldiers. The documentary is set not in a combat zone, but in the type of conference rooms and offices where defense attorneys or therapists meet with their clients, as the defendants prepare for their cases to be resolved. The “Kill Team” scripted feature film takes place almost entirely before the arrests, and brings the viewers directly into the environment that created the horrific “Kill Team” mentality to murder people for thrills.

The main protagonist in both films is the young specialist who enters the Army as a wide-eyed, eager-to-please rookie and leaves the Army as a disillusioned, broken man wracked with guilt over his participation in the murders. In real life, that man is Adam Winfield, whose name has been changed to Andrew Briggman in “The Kill Team” scripted film. In the beginning of the movie, Andrew (played by Nat Wolff) is excited and proud to join the Army, since his father is an Army vet who served honorably.

Andrew has a close relationship with his loving parents, William and Laura (played by Rob Morrow and Anna Francolini)—and it’s a relationship that plays a pivotal part later on in the story. However, Andrew is in for a rude awakening when he leaves the supportive cocoon of his middle-class family and goes off to war in Afghanistan. Early on, Andrew experiences the brutality of war when he and other squad members witness their squad leader being killed by an improvised explosive device (IED). In addition, several of the other soldiers in his squad initially give Andrew a hard time—they think because of his scrawny physique that he’s a nerdy wimp who’s not cut out for combat.

Andrew and his college-age peers essentially have a fraternity-like existence, with each member jockeying for position and testing boundaries when it comes to egos, power and respect. They argue, but they also party together (smoking hashish is one of their preferred leisure activities), and they have varying degrees of expectations on how much violence they’ll commit while they’re on active duty.

The stakes in the team’s power plays get higher when the squad gets a new staff sergeant named Sergeant Deeks (played by Alexander Skarsgård), who is charismatic but extremely manipulative. He does what most toxic leaders do: He pits his subordinates against each other so that they can prove who is the most loyal to him, and those who “win,” get the most rewards and benefits from him. Deeks (who is based on the real-life Calvin Gibbs) makes it known to his squad that he’s looking for a trusted right-hand man, which sets off a competition to see who’s the toughest of the bunch to get that position. Andrew is eager to prove himself worthy of being Deeks’ second-in-command, and he surpasses Deeks’ expectations by fulfilling increasingly violent tasks that Deeks orders him to do.

The other members of the squad—including Rayburn (played by Adam Long), Coombs (played by Jonathan Whitsell), Marquez (played by Brian Marc), Weppler (played by Osy Ikhile) and Cappy (played by Oliver Ritchie)—join in on the mayhem, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance. Coombs in particular has an almost joyful zest in the violence that he causes, because he thinks war should be about “kicking ass,” and he thinks it’s boring for soldiers to have duties such as patrolling areas and protecting civilians.

On the surface, Deeks appears to be an accomplished and upstanding military man—he lovingly checks in on his wife and young son back home via Skype chats—but it’s a façade that masks a sadistic criminal who likes to kill for fun, and he has a total disregard for the law and U.S. military policies. The first sign of Deeks’ corruption is when he catches his subordinates smoking hash, but instead of reporting this punishable offense, he tells them that what they’re doing is wrong because he knows where they can get better-quality hash.

It isn’t long before Deeks lets his young subordinates in on some of his secrets: He’s gotten away with an untold number of murders in Iraq and Afghanistan, simply by lying and saying that the people attacked first and were killed because of self-defense. In many of the cases, Deeks admitted to planting weapons on the victims (which is called a “drop weapon” technique) to further perpetuate the lie that the killings were justified. Deeks has also kept body parts (such as fingers) of many of his victims, and he likes to pose for pictures next to their dead bodies, much like a hunter poses for photos with dead prey.

Some of Deeks’ subordinates are all too eager to join him on his murder sprees, if it means that they can rise through the military ranks with Deeks as their mentor. They call themselves “The Kill Team,” and become a twisted fraternity of soldiers looking for unarmed victims to murder, under the guise of being good military men who are eliminating the enemy at war. When some of the squad members show signs of guilt, they’re threatened by Deeks to keep silent, or else he’ll make sure they’ll be beaten up or killed. After all, Deeks has shown that he’s capable of not only committing these crimes but also covering them up and making the victims look like the aggressors. Deeks’ subordinates are isolated, far from home, and under the command of a dangerous and powerful leader, so it’s easy to see why they went along with his heinous actions in order to protect themselves.

We’ve seen villains in many war movies before—the Oscar-winning classics “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” for example, each features a corrupt leader who fits the mold of the gruff, scowling bully instilling fear in his subordinates. What makes “The Kill Team” villain Deeks even more insidious is that his dominance isn’t all by brute force—he barks commands, but he also presents himself as a smiling, older brother to be admired and whose approval is a reward that his subordinates are desperate to get, even if it means that their morality gets stifled or snuffed out in the process.

Deeks’ physical presence—tall, blue-eyed good looks, as embodied by Skarsgård—also has a lot to do with his powerful influence, because he fits many people’s image of an American military hero. Skarsgård brings complexity to the role by portraying Deeks as loathsome but also with a self-righteous magnetism that makes it convincing that he could manipulate other people into thinking what he wants them to think. The merits of this film are largely centered on authentically explaining how someone like Deeks could get away with so much horrific destruction—and Skarsgård successfully rises to the challenge. The Andrew Briggman character is less complex and more transparent than Deeks, but Wolff effectively portrays the morality crisis and emotional turmoil of a soldier whose world is turned upside down by the horrors of war and corrupted values.

Krauss and his team did a terrific job of recreating not only the Afghanistan war zones (the movie was actually filmed in Spain) but also the military weapons and automobiles (which were actually digital effects) that were shown in the movie. Although many people already know the real-life outcomes of the Maywand District scandal, Krauss builds a level of suspense and emotional tension that will leave an impact on viewers and serve as a painful reminder that serial killing in the context of war is an issue that will never be fully erased.

UPDATE: A24 Films will release “The Kill Team” in select U.S. theaters and on VOD on October 25, 2019.

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