In what’s proving to be a rather sub-par Sundance (an understandable blip given the unusual nature of this year’s virtual festival), it’s a genuine thrill to encounter a film as exciting and immediate as Flee, a much-needed jolt of energy now reverberating on laptop screens across the country. Even in a traditional year, it’s the kind of audacious and uniquely told story that would have attendees excitedly buzzing around Park City, urging others to seek out, and despite the fractured nature of this year’s edition, a swell of digital support has helped it nab a seven-figure deal with Neon (helped also perhaps by its star producers Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), this year’s first big sale, a well-earned reward for what’s likely to be the best film of the festival.
The true story at its centre is one that’s tailor-made for some form of cinema, a harrowing and suspenseful refugee narrative of loss and resilience, and director Jonas Poher Rasmussen could have brought it to the screen in many ways, almost all of them more conventionally easier than the one he finally chose. Rasmussen’s friend, known in the film as Amin but whose real identity is being kept confidential, has an untold backstory that he only revealed to him years into their friendship. Amin is an Afghan refugee, now living with his fiance in Denmark, who agrees to share how he made his way from war-torn Kabul in the 80s to now, living a settled, open life as a gay man, one he’d never thought was possible.
Whichever form of storytelling had been settled on, the staggering details of Amin’s life would have been undeniable, but in animating his interviews with him and the various events being recalled, Rasmussen finds an unusually immersive way to pull us in even closer, one that’s both emotionally involving and artfully realised. Amin’s childhood, as with many others like him, was interrupted in the late 80s as conflict forced him and his family to escape their home, finding their way to Moscow. The following years are then told in pieces: fearful encounters with corrupt Russian police, desperate attempts to smuggle the family bit by bit to Europe and Amin realising, then hiding his burgeoning sexuality as a gay teen, fearful of the consequences of being open.
While Rasmussen animates the majority of the film, there are also interspersed montages of archival footage, deftly informing us of the basics of the political chaos that surrounds Amin’s life in both Afghanistan and Russia. It’s impossible to recall a refugee story told with such devastating efficacy as well as such specific nuance, showing us the horrors Amin experienced but also, importantly, how they stuck to him in the years after and still do. There’s an immense weight he carries, an almost constant fear of being removed, his home being taken away, a sudden yank back to a life of violence and uncertainty. There’s also an unimaginable burden, a feeling that he must always prove his worth, a responsibility to his family to succeed, an obsession with his career that we see causing tensions in his relationship.
There are sequences of almost unbearable suspense, as Amin tries to find safety, and infuriating injustice, as traffickers and officials take advantage, but also poignant liberation, as Amin steps into his first gay club, a scene of joyous comfort, the safest haven after so much strife. Amin’s life has involved so much suppression, both as an immigrant and as a gay man, that his identity has become such a confusing construct. His story shifts a few times in the film, as he sifts through what’s real and what he’s had to train himself to believe about himself and his past in order to survive. There’s a natural rhythm and sense of discovery to these recollections, as if he’s working so much of it out for himself still as he talks, the conversations between him and Rasmussen feeling therapeutic rather than exploitative. It’s a nakedly personal film and we feel honoured being allowed in the room with them, albeit in an animated version, intimately observing a story that up until now had been mostly repressed.
Flee is a remarkably humanising and complex film, expanding and expounding the kind of story that’s too easily simplified. Rasmussen has created a loving and unsparing tribute to his friend, a brave survivor whose story I’ll find impossible to forget.