Filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen was 15 when he encountered a new face on a local train in his sleepy Danish town. It was the kind of place where immigrants couldn’t help but stand out, but Rasmussen noticed this kid’s style first. He had some and most people there didn’t.
Rasmussen knew the boy, Amin (a pseudonym), lived with a foster family down the street and had come from Afghanistan, but he didn’t know much else. Riding together to high school daily, they became friends eventually. Amin didn’t talk about his past or his family and Rasmussen didn’t probe — they were just kids after all. It would take some 20 years for Amin to start telling Rasmussen, then a working filmmaker, the real story of his childhood. The result is the animated documentary “ Flee,” and it’s easily one of the best films of the year.
Amin and his family fled Kabul in the 1980s. They hoped to find asylum in Sweden but for five years faced impossible challenges and setbacks and kept finding themselves in Russia and under constant threat of deportation or exploitation by the police. Eventually, 15-year-old Amin landed alone in Denmark.
“Flee” introduces Amin as an adult who is gearing up to tell his story to the world for the first time. He’s an accomplished scholar with a longtime partner who wants to get married and buy a house, but Amin is reticent to put himself first. The visuals look as though we’ve snuck in on a therapist’s session, and the experience of hearing his story come out is not so different either. Amin has become so accustomed to hiding his truth, including the fact that he’s gay, that he’s actually a fairly unreliable narrator at first, lying to the audience and the director.
But Rasmussen sees that his friend won’t be able to actually live his life without confronting his past. So, with closed eyes, Amin takes us back to the five years he’s spent a lifetime repressing.
As in “Waltz with Bashir,” animation in “Flee” (literally) illustrates the specifics of Amin’s journey, taking us to places where we wouldn’t have had access, like the underbelly of a ship full of refugees trying to cross the Baltic Sea to Scandinavia. But it also gives us access to private moments, like playing volleyball in Kabul, seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme on television and realizing it’s a crush, or going to his first night at a gay bar. There is a welcome lightness to these moments too, which comes as a relief. Amin’s attempts to get to the West with his mother and brother are harrowing enough to give you an ulcer.
Rasmussen spent years interviewing Amin before starting work on the film. He also includes some actual newsreel footage, which helps remind the viewer that these events were very real. “Flee” is such a rich, seamlessly told and emotionally affecting story that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the narrative and forget that fact. But Rasmussen and his team are there to make sure we don’t.
“Flee,” a Neon release in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for thematic content, disturbing images and strong language." Running time: 90 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr