Flee is a 2021 Danish animated documentary feature that focuses on the life experiences of a young, gay Afghan academic named Amin, who has received asylum in Copenhagen. Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, I noticed Riz Ahmed (of whom I’m a huge fan) is one of the executive producers.

The movie (sub-titled) has been nominated for the upcoming Oscars in three categories: best international film, best animated feature and best documentary feature. I went to see it at my local cinema, which had literally one showing of the film, as part of its Tuesday night ‘Discovery’ strand. It really deserves to be shown more widely!

The film opens with Amin’s innocent childhood in Afghanistan, blighted by the disappearance of his father by the mujahideen, followed by years of living with his family as illegal immigrants in hostile Russia, and their gruelling and traumatic attempts to find sanctuary in Western Europe. Amin’s experiences were complicated by his homosexuality, coming, as he says, from a culture that did not even have a word for it.

Animation is a useful tool for painting Amin’s subjective experience. I’m no expert on animation techniques, but different artistic styles and colour palates artfully reflect the various elements of his experience, from carefree days in Afghanistan to moments of pure terror as an illegal migrant in a pathologically corrupt Russia. Aesthetically the film is often beautiful to watch (such as a Kabul-set scene that unfolds to A-ha’s 1980s banger Take on Me and evokes elements of that groundbreaking music video), while the reliance on drawn images rather than a camera recording seems to facilitate drilling down and focusing in on intimate elements of Amin’s personal experience. No doubt it is useful for protecting Amin’s identity, too. Mixed in are scenes using archive footage and news reports that bring home the wider context and bitter reality of Amin’s experiences.

It is a moving film, which highlights the discrepancies between complacent Westerners and desperate people who are driven to put themselves in the hands of seemingly psychopathic traffickers. In one scene, Amin and his family have been working frantically with other migrants to keep afloat in a dangerously unseaworthy boat, which they have been bailing out for days. Exhausted, terrified, suddenly they find themselves in the path of a massive cruise liner, and rows of impassive Western tourists gaze down at the depersonalized refugees, drinks in hands. The border guards have been notified, they tell them.

The scene that got a tear rolling down my cheek, though, was when Amin finally comes out as gay, and shortly afterwards finds himself in a technicolour night club. Something about the acceptance that he found – finally at home in the West – after so many years of gnawing anxiety about what must have seemed his impossible and unacceptable sexuality, was intensely moving.

This is an excellent, ultimately optimistic film, and deserves the accolades surely coming its way. Note though, it’s an animation that’s not aimed at kids.

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