We’ve all read stories about refugees. We’ve seen pictures of desperate people crowded at borders, packed together on flimsy boats or otherwise risking their lives to reach places of health, safety, and opportunity.
Sometimes, though, it’s difficult to respond to pictures and numbers. Even individual accounts of refugees we might find in newspapers and magazines can too easily be set aside.
Film, I think we agree, can have special power.
Perhaps that's why Flee earns a high rank in the canon of films about displaced refugees.
Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells the real-life story of a boy who fled Afghanistan with his family, taking a circuitous root to safety that ultimately separated him from his mother, sisters, and brothers. He finally landed in Denmark.
It happens that the young man is gay, an identity that’s not exactly welcomed in the boy's hometown of Kabul, especially during the mujahideen takeover that caused his family to flee during the 1980s.
Amin isn't the main character's real name, but Rasmussen wanted to protect the now-grown man’s identity, as well as the identities of his family members.
Oh, I almost forgot; the film is animated. That's significant, I think, because the story becomes more important than its style of presentation.
Rasmussen uses both realistic and abstract animation, news footage, and dialogue from interviews with the “real” Amin, a long-time friend. The two met as teenagers in Denmark.
When you see Flee, it will be obvious why it would have been difficult for anyone to recreate a live-action version of a journey that involves numerous locations — from Kabul to Moscow to Denmark to the US.
Rasmussen also would have had to hire numerous actors to play Amin at various ages.
Whatever reason for his choice, Rasmussen blends styles and ingredients more successfully than you might expect. And, as I said, it's the story that matters.
Flee proves alternately heartbreaking and harrowing as it chronicles, loneliness, displacement, horrific traveling conditions, and Amin’s attempts to come to grips with a history he has kept from even his closest friends.
It's a history that carries a burden, the great responsibility Amin feels to do something with his life based on sacrifices his family made on his behalf. He also lives with the fear that he will be snared and again deprived of a place to call "home."
Amin frequently concocted lies to protect himself and maintain his refugee status.
The end of the story might have been more developed but, at heart, Flee brings us close to the young Amin, his family and the nearly impossible choices they faced.
It also reminds us that people don’t flee their birthplaces unless they have compelling reasons for putting their lives in jeopardy—extreme hunger, oppression, horrific intolerance, and possibly even death.
More importantly, Flee inspires a bit of awe that Amin and his family remained bound by ties that had to withstand tests no one should have to endure.