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A 36-year-old academic in the States looks back on his harrowing childhood as a refugee from Afghanistan — and later Russia — as he unravels the secrets he’s had to repress to protect himself and his family.
With a frightening war raging overseas, there was dismay in many quarters about the film industry moving forward with its annual Oscars celebration, eclipsing the stark reality of bodies and billowing smoke coming out of Ukraine and luring us all back into our detachment.
Yet one nominated film sheds a timely light on some of the news coming out of Ukraine, particularly as the country’s refugee crisis reaches historic proportions not seen since the Afghanistan refugee crisis of 20 years ago. That film is Flee, a deeply personal story that was nominated in three categories: Best Documentary, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature. It tells the story of Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym), a now successful academic who fled Afghanistan for Russia as a boy in the 80s, only to be forced to flee a second time to Denmark, where he continued to live in fear of what would happen to him next.
To this day, with a secure post at a prestigious American university, Amin has to keep his past a secret, one he has kept for over two decades, for reasons that become clear as the narrative unfolds. Because of his need for anonymity, his story is recounted through animation, with Amin’s voice narrating from a series of intimate and often heart-wrenching interviews with the director, his high school classmate Jonas Poher Rasmussen.
“Home — what does it mean to you?” Rasmussen asks Amin as he takes his place on a couch, eyes closed. Amin begins by recounting his first home in Kabul in the 90s, where, as the youngest of five, he was free to wear his sister’s dress and play carefree in the streets, until the Soviet-backed government Afghanistan was replaced by the American-backed Mujahedeen. There is news footage and photos, but the story is told through the point of view of a scared, bewildered child who watches as his father, a military officer, is arrested and taken away.
The family must rely on an older brother and ultimately human traffickers to help them escape to Russia, where they face poverty, isolation, corruption and uncertainty wherever they land. To truly find a safe place to call home, their only hope is Scandinavia, they’re told, but getting there involves harrowing choices and a terrifying journey, with no guarantees they won’t be detained or lose their life en route.
The title of the film has several meanings, as Amin has had to flee his homeland, his family members, and even his sexual identity. But his revelations and his perseverance manage to inspire as they create a rare form of empathy, the renderings of Amin and his family evoking an impressionistic range of emotions. It’s a film that will make you feel lucky for your own relative security and freedom even as it helps you relate to the refugee experience…all as you question your own notions of home.
The best takeaway comes from Amin himself, who explains why he took on the risk of doing the film. “We never really heard about refugees, about their lives, their experiences prior to their journey in their home countries,” he told NPR. “And what we knew were often not very positive.”
“I wanted to tell that story also to the entire world that there is more into this concept of being a refugee. There are human beings behind this concept and they are not much different than everyone else.”
Perhaps the most relevant Oscar nominee of 2022, Flee is a must-see film as the world faces another refugee crisis. Watch this one with loved ones. It will make you appreciate your own connections to family and semblances of home, and the relative stability and embrace they have given you.