Flee a Mile in your Neighbor’s Shoes: Ramussen’s Refugee Doc Is A Journey Worth Taking
Evocative animation, first-person pain and a strong dose of hope bring Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s fourth documentary feature into unforgettable focus. Flee tracks the 20-year struggle of an Afghani refugee—pseudonym, Amin Nawabi—and, frankly, it’s riveting. Many films shine a lens on the global refugee crisis, but few are as absorbing and personal: here, the director and his subject are friends, close friends; their recorded interviews give the story its spine. Told through a series of flashbacks—each anecdote accompanied by a mix of vivid hand-drawn and rotoscoped graphics, à la Waltz with Bashir (2008)—this film is both sweeping in scope and intensely intimate.
Flee explores repressed trauma, finally allowed to exhale. After the Taliban disappears Nawabi’s father and tries to enlist his older brother, the family takes flight: from one fraught city to the next, they evade morally-bankrupt authorities, cope with immeasurable losses, confront impossible choices—and on top of all that, Nawabi is homosexual. The film makes room for a tender coming-of-sexuality that his real adolescence had no time to explore. Plus, as the story unfolds, we come to know the present-day Nawabi, who has built a life on the other end of his traumas: his friendship with Rasmussen; his romance with Kasper; his unshakeable faith in the potential before him.
Rasmussen’s respect for his friend is a constant. Flee finds time for levity, avoids superlatives and is never prurient. In his previous film, What He Did (2015), Rasmussen experimented by filling audio-visual gaps with archival footage; in this latest, he has found his stride. Here, the animation is understated; only during moments of peak emotion do the graphics take over, helping us inhabit Nawabi’s mind. He also experiments with color and focus: when Nawabi is claustrophobic, trapped in a leaking ship, the images turn black & white, impressionistic. All this is pleasing—but the true art of Flee lies in our emotional proximity to its subject.
Executive Produced by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who will voice the English-language dub), Flee seems destined to appeal to international audiences. But it’s not just a homework assignment designed to increase awareness of global trauma, it’s a thrilling, moving and perilous voyage in someone else’s shoes. Flee is the full-package deal: suspenseful and powerful; effective and affecting; a startling wake-up call and a surprisingly tender portrait. Ushering us deftly through the darkness, Nawabi’s journey encourages a delicate balance of introspection, empathy and hope: no matter what happened before, it is possible to rebuild, even when it’s impossible to forget.
Reviewed on January 31st at the 2021 (virtual) Sundance Film Festival – World Cinema Documentary Competition. 90 Mins