Flee, the animated documentary that premiered at Sundance last week, opens with Amin Nawabi, an Afghan refugee in Denmark, lying on a patterned cloth, talking to someone off-screen. It sounds something like therapy. He’s speaking to Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the director of the film and Nawabi’s old friend, who encourages him to recall his earliest memories. Two and a half decades prior, Nawabi had appeared at Rasmussen’s school with no family, minimal Danish, and no backstory. Charismatic and well-dressed, Nawabi made friends easily, but shared little. The class rumor was that he’d walked from Kabul.
Now full-grown, Nawabi has since come out, gotten engaged to his boyfriend, and begun to apply to post-doctorate programs. Over the course of several interviews, Nawabi tells Rasmussen the backstory of his emigration, which he’d kept secret for decades to protect his political asylum.
Flee, which aired on Thursday evening, was a standout of the all-virtual and unavoidably lackluster festival. By the end of the night, the movie had sold to distributor Neon for a price in the low seven figures, making it the year’s first big sale. The price tag may have had something to do with its executive producers, Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who recently signed on to voice the two leads in an upcoming English-language version. But the movie itself is unpausable, a dark, subtly playful recreation of Nawabi’s voyage from Kabul to Moscow to Copenhagen, in a sly combination of cartoon and archival footage. The animation allows Rasmussen to protect the identity of his friend, who still lives in Denmark under political asylum; Amin Nawabi is a pseudonym. But it also grants Rasmussen a kind of temporal flexibility, sliding between animation styles—from well-defined, Archer-like color to charcoal-sketched black-and-white—as the narrative moves from present day to past. Rasmussen relies on live-action mainly for atmosphere, to set the tone of 1984 Kabul or Soviet Russia, at times to cutting effect. When the conflict in Nawabi’s home city forces he and his family to flee, Rasmussen punctuates their flight with infuriating footage of what remained for the civilians who stayed.
The plot, like conversation or memory, plays out in stops and starts—weaving between tense chases from Afghan cops, then Russian cops, then failed attempts to flee with smugglers, at times jumping into the present, where Nawabi’s flight still haunts him. The fear and instability combined with a secret that allows him to live in Denmark have shaped his academic studies and all of his relationships. Nawabi resists even his fiancé’s attempts to buy a house, worried, on some level, that he might have to leave.
An obvious point of comparison for Flee might be Waltz with Bashir, the seminal animated documentary that also follows a man on a descent into memory, long repressed by the trauma of war. The catalysts for both films are conversations with childhood friends—like Nawabi and Rasmussen, the protagonist and director of Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman, confesses a recurring nightmare to an old army buddy. Both tell true stories with fictionalized details. Both have elements of meta-narrative: Folman plays himself as a documentarian; Nawabi’s monologue unfolds in a series of filmed interviews, similar to the opening, where illustrated equipment often peeks into frame. Some scenes start with a clapperboard and “Action!”
The movie’s first homage, however, is not to another documentary, but to a music video: the perennial earworm, “Take On Me,” from the Norwegian synthpop group, A-ha. When Rasmussen urges Nawabi to recall his earliest memory, the colorful animation of recent time dissolves into something more sketch-like: a black-and-white montage of a boy running, before coming into color in the streets of Kabul in 1984. A child-aged Nawabi is tearing through the streets, listening to a walkman through pink headphones, as the A-Ha track fades in in the background. The scene is a timestamp—the song came out that year—and a visual nod to the video’s rotoscoped style. A-ha’s much-parodied music video also follows its comic-book-drawn hero’s escape through an illustrated dimension, zipping in and out of live-action, running from vague bad guys, only to find himself caught between two worlds, with the person he loves on the opposite side.
The pop cultural references scattered sparsely throughout the film stand in stark contrast to the substance of Nawabi’s story. It’s partly why he clings to them. In one scene, as his weakened mother starts to cough uncontrollably in their miniscule Moscow apartment, Nawabi dons his headphones and drowns out the sound with Swedish pop songs. Later, as he comforts himself with Spanish soap operas, one star winks at him through the screen, emulating A-ha’s hero in their video’s signature scene.