'The need for home, a place where we feel safe': Oscar-nominated Flee is an animated prism of Afghan life and refugee strife
It's fitting that Flee is an animation.
The film is classified as a documentary, and it manages to capture the details of life in Afghanistan. The brassy tea kettles, the tall metal doors, the rooftop pigeon races, the posters of Western action stars on the walls of teenagers and the rows and rows of houses along the crisscrossing streets are all there.
But the film, which is up for the best-animated feature, documentary feature and international feature awards at this year’s Oscars, contains multitudes. It’s about war. It’s about refugee life. It’s about the Cold War. It’s about a young man coming to terms with his sexuality. It’s also about a successful professional in Europe struggling with a past that is strewn across Afghanistan, Russia and Europe.
"Whether Flee wins any of the Oscars its up for... it is still a vital film that has managed to become even more pressing during the course of the awards season"
And it’s all told through an anonymized narrator, who eschews media attention for his story full of elements that could be part of the lives of millions of other Afghans. Or Syrians. Or Iraqis. Or, despite the media’s supposed shock, Ukrainians.
As the Director, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, said to The New Arab, his friend’s story of growing up in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and fleeing to Europe, is about the “need for home, a place where we feel safe.”
Amin, the main character is very much seeking literal safety from conscription into the communist military, civil war and eventually, falling bombs. But he’s also seeking a home where he is free to be himself.
Rasmussen told The New Arab he never set out to make a political film. He just wanted to tell the story of the friend he’s known since both men were teenagers in Denmark.
“The whole thing started from our friendship. I didn’t think I want to do a refugee story, I just wanted to tell the story of how and why my friend showed up in my little hometown in Denmark. That’s it.”
But as an Afghan-American journalist who, like Amin, had to flee Soviet-occupied Afghanistan as a child, everything about the story is political.
Throughout its 177 minutes, Flee manages to conjure up the stories our parents constantly told us about our childhood flight from communist-ruled Afghanistan and our own adult experience of having to leave the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate.
At one point, the film cuts to evocative scenes of empty homes that were left untouched and made to look as if the residents were just out for the day. Those scenes were true in the 1980s and they were true in 2021 after former President Ashraf Ghani fled and the Taliban walked into Kabul on August 15.
For months after the Taliban takeover, the carpets, clothes, paintings, photographs and cushions in our homes were exactly where we had left them. Empty homes waiting for life to return.
"The film is classified as a documentary, and it manages to capture the details of life in Afghanistan. The brassy tea kettles, the tall metal doors, the rooftop pigeon races, the posters of Western action stars on the walls of teenagers and the rows and rows of houses along the crisscrossing streets are all there"
It's also potentially a lesson to the commentators, analysts, journalists, politicians and British royals, who have spent the last month breathlessly recounting how the Ukrainians, with their “blue eyes and blonde hair” are not from “developing third-world” nations and somehow more deserving of refuge in Europe than people who came on “a dingy.”
Yes, while Flee has been on a campaign in support of its history-making nominations in three separate feature film categories, upwards of two million more people were experiencing what Amin and his family went through when Moscow invaded their nation, but unlike Afghans, who have had to flee Soviet occupation, civil war, Taliban rule, US occupation and the Taliban’s return to power over the last 40 years, Ukrainians are seen as having “a genuine reason” to seek safety in Europe.
Rasmussen, who remembers seeing Syrian refugees wandering the highways of Denmark in 2015, tells The New Arab that Amin’s story “represents all refugees” and that despite the media’s claims, the human desire for safety “doesn’t apply to any single specific geographic place.”
One need not look too far for the proof of that. In many ways, Rasmussen’s chief competition in the Animated Feature category, Encanto, is simply a story about a large Colombian family struggling to cope with what happens when their own magical home in a lush South American town no longer feels safe.
Whether Flee wins any of the Oscars it's up for (it’s going against heavy hitters in each category), it is still a vital film that has managed to become even more pressing during the course of the awards season.
That trajectory is proof of how important films, even when they’re animated, can be in taking seemingly specific, isolated stories and showing the very real, human experiences behind them.
Especially at this time of so much divisive rhetoric of who qualifies as a legitimate refugee and where wars are somehow expected to take place, Rasmussen tells The New Arab that Flee is a simple story about “how alike we all are and how we all have the same dreams.”
Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-based freelance journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Qatar, Turkey, Greece and Washington, DC.
Follow him on Twitter: @alibomaye