Flee, directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, is an excellent example of the power of multimedia documentaries. Combining animation with old film and media footage, it tells the true story of Amin Nawabi, a refugee from Afghanistan.
Casting against the powerful backdrop of pencil- or brush-outlined figures running across a bleak, whitish backdrop—a visual motif that is repeated throughout the film—Flee presents us with animated versions of Amin, now a young man and a successful academic in Denmark, being interviewed about his life by Jonas, the director. It is a story that Amin confesses he has never told before. He says he is ready to tell the story now, but when Jonas wants details about his family, Amin asks for more time. We can sense there are things about his past that Amin is afraid to tell, though the nature and contours of his fear are revealed only much later.
What unfolds is a complex and moving story about refugees, with Afghanistan as its background. This is both the strength and, to my mind, the only partial weakness of the film. Though the word “refuge” goes back to older roots, deriving from Latin “refugium” (“a place to flee back to”), the word “refugee” came directly into English from the French word “refugie”, and it referred specifically to Protestants who fled France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. By the 1690s, however, “refugee” was already being used in its currently general sense. It is too general a sense at times.
Amin is a refugee from the wars and conflicts in Afghanistan. His father is dead, and so, it appears at the beginning, is his family. In that sense, he is one of 26.4 million refugees around the globe, and the documentary powerfully tells the mostly occluded story of one such refugee. But another element also creeps into the story right at the start. Recalling his earliest memories at the age of four, which takes us back to 1984, Amin alludes to his fondness for wearing girls’ clothes as a child. Soon, it is disclosed that Amin is now, in Denmark, a gay man, living with his partner, Kasper. This brings up another kind of refuge. For, as Amin indicates, it is not possible to be gay in places like Afghanistan. According to the International LGBT and Intersex Association, 69 UN member states still criminalise same-sex sexual acts between adults, of which 11, including Afghanistan, recommend or could potentially recommend the death penalty for consensual same-sex sexual acts.
Amin, then, is doubly a refugee. One can argue that even in many other countries, apart from the 69 listed above, LGBT individuals live in a constant war zone— always ducking from possible sniper shot, running around in camouflage, trying not to attract the wrong kind of attention. This applies to even many countries where homosexuality is not illegal. For instance, in the United States in 2008, according to FBI data, the ratio of crimes committed because of racial bias and crimes committed because of sexual orientation was about three to one.
The psychological scars are just as deep. A poignant episode in Flee shows us the adolescent Amin, finally having managed to get asylum in Denmark, talking to his Danish adviser. He tells the adviser, “I would like medicine.” What is the problem, she asks. Amin replies: “You know what, let’s talk about the thing about me, me liking men.” He has had no relationship with a man until then. But his struggle to get to a safe place, out of Afghanistan, has never been his only struggle. As difficult has been his struggle against his own sexual inclinations, inclinations that, given the world he has grown up in, he has come to see as an illness.
Denmark, then, is also a refuge for Amin as a gay man. But Denmark, and his relationship with Kasper in Denmark, has not been easy to reach. Amin’s struggle to escape war starts sometime in 1989, with the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, soon after which his ageing mother flees with him, an older brother and two sisters to Russia, the only country willing to give them visas. But, of course, they have already been scarred by the war: his father, a shadowy remembrance in the film, was arrested with 3,000 others a few years earlier when the communists overthrew the royal regime in Kabul. He disappeared in prison. Now, gathering her two sons and two daughters, the mother flees to Russia, where, for the first time, we are told of an older brother, who is in Sweden, and who comes down to meet them.
This sudden arrival of a hitherto unmentioned older brother is a shock, narratively jarring, but there is a reason for it. Flee is partly a brave film about this reason too. As the two daughters first, and then the boys and their mother, separately, after failed attempts, are smuggled into asylum in Sweden and, in Amin’s case, Denmark, what we are shown are not just the hazards and traumas involved, but also how refugees— owing to asylum and other “civilised” laws—are often forced to live a lie. Amin, for instance, takes so long to tell Jonas of his family because he has to sustain the pretence, which enabled him to get asylum as a young boy, that his family died in Afghanistan. If he had mentioned anyone in any other country, he would have been shunted off to some other place, just as he, his brother and his mother, on their first attempt to reach Sweden, were spotted by a Norwegian luxury liner—lots of photos taken of the overloaded refugee boat—and shunted back to Russia. Hence, we learn only late in the film that, apart from his father, who disappeared in prison, the rest of Amin’s immediate family survived but now lives scattered all over Europe.
The inability to trust others, the compulsion to live a lie in order to stay safe, as Flee beautifully shows, is an aspect of the ways in which the world rejects—or accepts—– refugees. In a strange way, it reminds me of the ending of Joseph Conrad’s great novella from 1899, Heart of Darkness, in which the narrator, Marlow, returns to Europe from Africa to utter a lie. In Marlow’s case, it is the lie of colonisation: he cannot really tell what is happening in Africa. It is also a lie of the pretence of civilisation in Europe. The lies that refugees like Amin have to tell in order to stay safe seem much worse to me, as they are forced by “civilisation” to tell those lies. For Marlow, the lie seems to be a way to avoid facing the darkness at the heart of civilisation. For refugees like Amin, the lie is the condition on which they may be allowed to join, if lucky, “civilisation”. Their suffering is not enough. It is a great price to pay.
Amin’s older brother from Sweden pays another kind of price: it is at huge cost to his own personal life, while working as a cleaner, that he funds the survival of his family. Amin’s awareness of such sacrifices is also the impetus behind his attempt to seek a “medicine” for his homosexuality. He cannot bear the prospect of telling his family. Some years later, in a rash moment, Amin discloses that he might be gay to his older brother and two sisters. He has finally managed to visit them in Stockholm, having received his Danish papers. His brother silently drives Amin to a gay club, gives him money to spend, and tells him, “We always knew.” It is only then, as a young man, that Amin can for the first time embrace his own sexuality. He finds refuge in that sense too.
Being gay means that Amin is not just another refugee among 26.4 million refugees. It means that there are many different kinds of refugees, and though many share the terrors of, say, illegal trafficking—also brilliantly narrated in Flee—it might not help to see them as a number. For instance, sad as the condition of Ukrainian refugees is in the world today because of Putin’s horrible war, it is obvious that their reception in Europe has been different from that of Amin, and of millions from Africa or Asia.
The film is aware of this. There is a disturbing episode in Flee when corrupt Russian police officers rape an illegal refugee girl—the episode is indicated, not shown— who cannot bribe them, while letting Amin and his brother go, despite their failure to bribe them too. The girl refugee in this case is even more vulnerable than these two boys from Afghanistan.
It is to Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s credit that he sees and, to an extent, indexes such gradations. This is an excellent film, and more so one with its heart in the right place. This is difficult in today’s world. Flee was rightly nominated for the Oscars in 2022, that is, more than three decades after Amin’s family started “fleeing”. The Oscars function as the fashionable conscience of the West, so, if an issue gathers applause on that forum, it means that mainstream West is finally beginning to think about it. Flee needs to be congratulated for making it think, even though three decades have lapsed.
But, I wonder, will excellent film-makers like Jonas Poher Rasmussen dare to make it think enough, more urgently?
Let me explain the question with an illustration from the film. This is early on in Amin’s narrative. The year is around 1989. A media film spliced into Flee shows Mohammad Najibullah, then President of Afghanistan, giving a news conference or speech on TV. He refers to US weapons being lavished on the Mujahideen to fight the communist regime in Kabul: “The US wants a Vietnam War for the USSR in Afghanistan, but I’m telling you that when the US supplies the terrorists with aid, Afghanistan could well become a second Vietnam for the US instead!”
The irony of the matter is that Najibullah was right on both counts: Afghanistan became a Vietnam for the Soviet Union; it also became a Vietnam for the US later on. And it remains sunk in a permanent Vietnam-horror today, in a world where a similar nexus of arms, capital and power politics reigns, and few film-makers are willing to tackle it. And if they do, they will not be nominated for an Oscar—at least not for another three decades. Afghanistan is too much just the background in this powerful film. Too many Afghanistans, big and small, all similar like refugees, all different like refugees, continue to fade away into the backgrounds of our civilised pity.
The documentary “Flee” can be viewed on Zee5. Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.