In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” A century later, someone equally prescient could have written that the problem of the 21st century would be the border line (in all too many ways, a reenactment of the color line). Not even World War II saw the displacement of so many human lives as the past two decades have.
As the martyr defined the early days of Christianity, so does the refugee define late capitalism: victimhood in pursuit of salvation then, victimhood in seeking survival now. Globalization doesn’t just mean supply chains and tax havens and McDonald’s in Mumbai (there are 94). It also means a stateless Afghan family in Moscow, terrified of being found out by the police, watching Mexican soap operas dubbed in Russian.
The pseudonymous Amin Nawabi is part of that family. Born in Afghanistan, Amin fled with his mother and four siblings to a soon-to-implode Soviet Union, was later imprisoned in Estonia, returned to what had become Russia, and now lives in Denmark. Amin is the subject of the Danish documentary “Flee.”
His is not a representative life. For one thing, Amin has a home and now leads a comfortable, unthreatened life: wine with dinner, a pet cat, a garden. But the life he led — was forced to lead — before reaching Copenhagen speaks to the dire history of tens of millions. If it weren’t such a good and distinctive film, “Flee” would still have a strong claim on the attention of moviegoers, since it’s that powerful a rendering of the refugee experience. But it is that good and definitely that distinctive.
Much of the distinctiveness is stylistic: “Flee” is animated. There’s some live-action footage, for historical context: daily life in Afghanistan, the incarceration center in Estonia. The footage also provides a visual counterpoint to the animated sequences, which dominate the film.
Those sequences consist of Amin discussing his life with the film’s director — lying on a couch as he speaks, he could be a patient with his analyst — and flashbacks to his earlier life. An important element in the story is that Amin realized early on he was gay, and thus doubly an outsider. (His boyhood crush on Jean-Claude Van Damme might qualify as another, less-monetized form of globalization.) His partner, Kasper, occasionally appears; and scenes of them house-hunting provide relief from painful memories. “It hurts to think back on it,” Amin says of his earlier life. “Flee” lets us see, literally, why that should be so.
The seeming eccentricity of telling a real-life story this way may be what draws viewers. The story itself, and the skill with which it’s told, are what keep them watching. An animated documentary isn’t unprecedented. “Waltz With Bashir,” about the Arab-Israeli conflict, came out in 2008. It earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign picture. Using animation actually makes a lot of sense for a documentary. It allows for the visual presentation of events for which a filmmaker doesn’t have footage. Think of it as being like a nonfiction book illustrated by sketches or drawings in lieu of photographs.
With “Flee,” using animation has two further virtues. Paradoxically, they have opposed effects. Animation distances Amin’s experiences, many of which would otherwise be barely endurable to watch. Yet it also makes those experiences more involving. They’re at once more visually vivid and lent an archetypal weight. It’s a weight that extends beyond the stateless and uprooted. “What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?” the director asks Amin early on. He struggles for an answer. Those watching “Flee” may well do so, too.
An important note: The combination of “Flee” being animated and having a PG-13 rating might make some parents think it suitable for mature preteens and young adolescents interested in global issues and with a social conscience. It’s not. While in no way graphic or gratuitous, “Flee” includes several sequences that are deeply harrowing, especially one involving human trafficking.
Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Written by Rasmussen and Amin Nawabi. At Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner. 89 minutes. PG-13 (nope, it definitely should be R, so emotionally overpowering are several of the darker scenes, especially those involving human trafficking). In Danish, Dari, Russian, English, and Swedish, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.