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Sundance 2021, part 7: ‘Flee’

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This is the seventh piece in the Sundance Film Festival 2021 series by Julie Fukunaga and Olivia Popp. Follow along for coverage of films from Sundance’s reimagined virtual festival.

After screening on the first day of the festival, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated feature “Flee” became the first acquisition of Sundance 2021 when it was picked up by Neon for U.S. distribution, joining the ranks of Neon’s major U.S. acquisitions including “Parasite,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Palm Springs.” Rasmussen’s remarkably moving film about his close friend Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym), a gay Afghan refugee, premiered in the World Cinema Documentary section and won the section’s Grand Jury Prize. (The film was selected for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival but made its world premiere at Sundance after Cannes was canceled.)

“Flee” demonstrates that animated features provide flexibility in telling powerful documentary stories. Blending archival footage with a self-referential animation style and topped off by a fantastic era-specific soundtrack (including iconic hits by Roxette, Ace of Base and a-ha) that will whisk you back to the late 1980s, “Flee” is an obvious must-watch when released widely.

Co-written by Rasmussen and Nawabi (this piece uses “Amin” to refer to the in-film character and “Nawabi” to refer to the real-life person), “Flee” is a story told equally by the both of them. The two crafted the film together while Rasmussen interviewed Nawabi, who finally told his story of seeking asylum in Denmark after fleeing Afghanistan and following a circuitous route to his future home. Much of the animation in “Flee” is drawn from videos of Rasmussen’s live-action interviews with Nawabi. (In animated sequences that depict Rasmussen interviewing Amin, the former literally places himself into the film, albeit with blond hair instead of his real-life brown.) With Nawabi’s crucial part in the creative process, “Flee” thus acts as a documentary film while concurrently depicting the unfolding of Amin’s mind onscreen. It is a work that combats the commonly extractive or exploitative motivations behind documentary pieces that tell stories of trauma or deeply personal history.

Viewers are initially greeted with what we may take as Amin’s story, but we soon learn that this is the fabricated backstory he was implored to repeatedly tell and retell, a copy of which he wrote in his diary upon arriving in Denmark as a teen. As the unreliable narrative threads unravel, Amin’s “real past” is revealed, creating an emotional portrait of a young man simultaneously confronting his sexuality while enduring life in multiple places as a refugee. “Flee” is just as much about Amin’s story as it is about the story of him finally coming to terms with telling it. 

As heartrending as “Flee” is at times, the film also exists comfortably in the present tense, as viewers are exposed to Amin’s current life as a successful academic preparing to move into a beautiful new home with his boyfriend and soon-to-be husband. Nonetheless, “Flee” doesn’t seek to be demonstrative or savioristic by linking some past trauma to a success story of exceptionalism. In particular, Amin’s queerness is handled with grace as one facet of his identity that viewers are allowed to see. Opening on a young Amin merrily dancing his way through the streets of Kabul wearing his sister’s dress while listening to a-ha’s “Take on Me,” the film illustrates how Amin grew aware of his sexuality from a young age, crushing first on martial arts action star Jean-Claude Van Damme — whose film posters he hung in his bedroom. In Denmark, Amin has the opportunity to more openly adhere to his true self, but his queerness also casts each of his experiences — such as the furtive crush that Amin has on a fellow refugee being smuggled out of Russia — in a unique light. The only evidence of their encounter is a necklace that the young man gave Amin after catching him eyeing it. But set to pulsing 1990s rock hits, even their brief time together becomes one of heartwarming platonic intimacy and solidarity, rather than one of tragedy and missed connections.

The film’s collaborative element elevates the film beyond that of a simple retelling of a refugee narrative — or even an animated documentary, for that matter. The effort it takes for Amin to piece apart fact from fiction is crucial to the compelling nature of “Flee.” The lasting impact of the multiple layers of truth reverberates through Amin’s life, as when he is blackmailed by an ex-boyfriend who discovered that the story he told to Danish authorities upon arriving in-country was untrue. At one point in the film, Amin also admits that perhaps his compulsion to pursue higher degrees was born out of a self-induced pressure to do as much as he could with the life for which his family dearly sacrificed themselves to give him. Viewers will likely be left with the hope that finally releasing his story by creating the film was a rewarding and perhaps even cathartic experience for Nawabi. Ultimately, “Flee” beautifully brings into question what we may take as documentary filmmaking — especially considering the constructed and highly conditional natures of objectivity, truth and authenticity.

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Olivia Popp was a managing editor of Arts & Life for volumes 251 through 254 and the editor-at-large for The Stanford Daily's board of directors for volumes 254 and 255. She hails from Michigan and enjoys science fiction TV shows, independent film festivals, and the Bay Area theater scene.