There have been legions of compelling documentaries about the harrowing nature of the refugee experience, fleeing conflict and persecution from the world’s most dangerous places.
One excellent real-people/real footage film that follows a family through all it takes to escape Afghanistan and get into Europe was “Midnight Traveler.” But one thing most such films lack is a way of capturing the back story, letting us see lives that weren’t being documented, dangerous encounters with soldiers or police and the like.
Filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen gets around that rather ingeniously with “Flee,” a “Waltzes with Bashir” animated documentary built on the filmmaker’s interviews with his subject, a man who fled Afghanistan as a child, who made it to Denmark and who gives a guarded audio memoir in response to Rasmussen’s questions.
A team of animators artfully sketch in the world the man who goes by “Amin” in the film remembers, the ordeals he and his family endures, the trauma that left him guarded, almost paranoid, but a survivor, now an academic, able to tell his story to the world.
The “Amin” we hear from in the film, in sessions depicted as almost psychotherapeutic — he lies on a sofa, at times — is a 40ish man with survivor’s guilt, a lingering sense of a refugee’s desperation and an almost primal sense of self-preservation.
He was told to lie to get out, to escape the “sanctuary” of Russia after his family escaped Afghanistan, told to lie by the human traffickers who took multiple shots at getting him and his family to freedom in the West.
You can’t help but notice how selective he is about his background. His father was singled out by the communist regime for arrest during the years when the Soviets fought in the middle of the civil war there. He disappeared. But Amin’s family was obviously well-connected and well-off enough to get out, allowed into the former U.S.S.R., and then by hook and by crook, to make their way to Sweden and in his case, Denmark.
There are moments when Rasmussen, who has gotten to know the man and heard versions of his tale before, gently gets Amin to own up to lying, and explain why he did. We get it.
And right from the start, we know other truths from this Muslim man from the most dangerous place in the world. Even as a little boy, “I wasn’t afraid of wearing my sister’s dresses, her nightgown.”
From the time he was old enough to develop crushes on movie stars via their posters and trading cards, Amin knew he was different. He was really gone for Jean-Claude Van Damme, he says.
So here was a gay tween flown out of Afghanistan when the Mujahadeen, later to give way to the Taliban, took over. He and his family arrive in a Soviet Union that is collapsing, and face the shakedowns of the corrupt police and the hopeless dream of getting to Sweden, where an older brother has settled.
The film captures the murderous menace of Russia’s version of “coyotes,” human smugglers, men without conscience who stuff paying customers into the locked hold of a coastal trawler which breaks down well short of delivering them to Scandinavia.
And that’s just one attempt to get out.
Along the way, we get hints of the life Amin has had since escaping his past, skimming past his college years to suggest an academic career, but nothing really about how he helped get his story made into a movie.
If I’m being skeptical of this uplifting story’s facts (admittedly changed to protect the family from persecution or reprisals), it’s because of everything it leaves out. I am treating it like a documentary, which it is. And as such, it’s incomplete.
The (under-animated) animation, aside from its recreations of Amin’s childhood and the stops on his journey, is more or less a gimmick. Inserted snippets of news footage about the war, the Soviet collapse, the conditions in places where Amin was held, give the film it’s grounded veracity.
This really happened and it really happened to him, he says. It doesn’t matter that animation isn’t admissible in court. We believe him, and there’s plenty to back that up.
Some will connect with his “coming out” struggle, before that phrase has made it into his vocabulary. It’s touching, although I have to admit all the psychobabble about the trauma and created his restlessness while house shopping with his Danish partner lost me.
If this was all live-action “documentary” footage, I’d be much more inclined to gripe about all the “life” that’s skimmed over to focus more on his personal present. There’s no doubt he’s been through the ringer.
But if we you want a film that explains down to the molecular level how he got out when millions didn’t, the things “Flee” omits speak almost as loudly as the “triumph of the spirit” story he tells.
“Flee” as animated documentary is quite engrossing and sometimes even moving. But as biography, it’s barely sketched in.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic content, disturbing images and strong language
Cast: The voices of Amin Nawabi and Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Credits: Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, scripted by Amin Nawabi and Jonas Poher Rasmussen .A Neon release.
Running time: 1:29