VIFF 2021 Review: Flee

Flee is an animated documentary of Amin: an Afghani refugee living in Denmark who always felt he had to hide his true past from everyone. Including the man he loves.

Flee was the first time I was able to see an animated film at the VIFF this year. It isn’t just an animated film. It’s part-story, part-documentary that tells a lot about a remarkable story.

The story begins with a man named Amin. He tells the story of his life and his ordeal. He tells it in fluent Danish. He first tells of his story of how he had to flee as his whole family had been killed off. This is a story he also tells his boyfriend Kasper. This is on the verge of Kasper about to buy a house for him and Amin. Meanwhile Amin is undecided whether to accept living with Kasper or accept a teaching job at a university.

The interviewer then takes Amin to a private place. There, Amin can tell the true story. It starts when he reflects of his childhood in Kabul. His biggest memories are of being four in the mid-1980’s and running down the streets with a Walkman with pink earphones in his hand and wearing a dress! However the harsh realities hit Amin and his family in 1989 when Amin turns eight. The Mujahideen have taken over Afghanistan, just two years after the Soviets withdrew from the nation. Their father has been captured and they don’t know what happened to them. Fearing they’ll be next, Amin, his mother, two sisters and brother seek refuge on a plane. The plane takes them in Moscow as the USSR is one of few countries willing to take the family in because of their status.

Life is not very good for the family in Moscow. Even after the fall of communism, they can only do limited work, live in a cramped flat and constantly be harassed by corrupt policeman who heckle them for being different. They know they will have to flee to another country if they are ever able to be free for once. However their only hope depends on human traffickers. They all want to flee to Sweden. The eldest brother is the only one who can work. It is he who will have to provide the money for these trips.

The first trip, which involved being in a car failed and they found themselves back in Moscow. The second trip involved the whole family travelling at once. This involved a long walk through the woods with others right in the coldness of winter. It then led them all to a fishing vessel where they had to hide themselves in the fish trap. The feel of the boat trip was nerve-wracking with the water splashing. Then water started coming in, which involved the passengers coming out of the trap to get the water out. Fortunately a cruise ship discovers the boat. Unfortunately, the cruise ship calls Estonian police to rescue the passengers. That meant back to Moscow.

The long wait is frustrating. The mother is getting older, the siblings including Amin himself are growing and missing out a lot on their future, and the oldest brother is having the frustration of his future being squandered to saving up for these illegal immigration stings. It’s frustrating, but they can’t go on watching Mexican soap operas and being harassed by Moscow police forever. Finally the brother finds a new illegal immigration operation. It’s way more expensive than the ones in the past, but this has excellent chances of working. However this involves each of the family members to go alone.

Amin is to go with one other teen male. The agent gives both boys strict instructions to obey. The trip starts with both of them being inside a van and lying down. During the trip, Amin senses a feeling he has toward the other male. The male gives him his gold chain. Before they board the plane, the agent gives the two plane tickets and passports: Amin for Denmark and the other boy for Switzerland. They all go on a flight to Istanbul. As the flight lands, the agent advises the two to do everything he instructs them to do and once they arrive in their country of destination to tear up the passport and tell officials their story. After the agent leaves, the two depart but not without one final goodbye.

Hours later, Amin arrives in Copenhagen, tears up the passport, and tells his story of being a completely orphaned Afghani refugee. As he’s transported to safety, he looks out the window of the car and sees freedom, but can’t feel it or sense it. He spent years living in a shelter living with various families and pursuing excellent grades in school. Then one day, he receives a phone call. It’s his brother in Sweden. Amin learns his brother found refuge in Sweden from his own trip from the trafficker.

Time would improve for Amin. Soon he’d learn all of his family including his mother had found refuge in various places in Europe with his two sisters also living in Sweden. His life has improved as he has been able to become a strong academic and even had lecturing jobs at American colleges. However he’s still had to keep his true life a secret from his boyfriend and his homosexuality a secret from his family as Afghani culture considers homosexuality to bring shame to the family. One day, when the brother and sisters get into conversation about Amin not being married, he then outs himself to the shock of all. The brother then tells Amin to get into the car. Amin is uncertain and fearful about what will happen next during the car ride. The brother takes him to a gay bar and hands him some money. They knew all along! Inside the gay bar, Amin discovers a freedom he never thought possible. The film then flashes forward two years later showing how Amin’s life has improved.

This is definitely a story about a current hot topic: refugees and illegal immigrants. It’s constantly an issue. As long as there’s political oppression and corruption, there are going to be people fleeing. Refugees and illegal immigrants probably feel they have something to hide about themselves. Even if they become legit citizens of their country, they feel they still have something to hide and they have to lie for their freedom. Roughly they’re still mentally ‘on the run.’ Even the fact that the subject has to tell his whole truth under the pseudonym Amin Nawabi adds to this factor. It becomes evident when Amin first tells the interviewer of his story of his family deceased. Then when he’s in a private room, he tells the truth. It’s also evident how he’s unsure whether to commit to marrying his boyfriend Kasper and instead accept an offer at an American university.

Amin’s story is definitely a story of intrigue. This is a story of a man who pretty much feels he has his ‘life on the run.’ He had to flee his home of Afghanistan with his family and first settle in Russia, only for all to find another nation to live in. This is a case of three attempts and the frustration of wondering if you’ll ever be free. This is about feeling that you have to hide the truth of yourself even though you’re now living in a free country. This is about even hiding a truth about yourself that is forbidden and seen as shame in your home country. I think that’s the point of the story. About hiding things. It starts off as a case that Amin has a lot to hide. However over time, he opens up. Hidden truths about himself no longer become a taboo. It’s a case as we see the story unravel over time just as we get to the part where he outs himself to his siblings.

This is a story of from a life of refuge to a newly discovered freedom. When you look at it, Amin’s freedom in Denmark is the best thing to happen to him. We all see he had to deal with life in Russia along with his siblings. Even without attempts to immigrate, Russia was no place for them. Not as they were constantly being harassed. Afghanistan was no place for them either as their father may had been killed and they would be in pursuit. It’s especially no place for Amin as his sexuality was obvious at a young age. If he had not fled from Afghanistan in his lifetime, he could have been executed for his homosexuality. That really gets you thinking. Especially when we recently heard about the return of the Taliban to power. It’s something how Amin is born in a country with the harshest attitude towards homosexuality and finds himself in one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage!

I give top accolades to writer/director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. He’s done films about people’s struggle with homosexuality before. The story does a very good job as it goes from the interview to the re-enactments of Amin’s past. From running down the streets listening to Take On Me to the family forgetting their problems as they watch Mexican soap operas, it does a good job of telling the story while mixing other elements in the background. The images do a great job in capturing the drama of the time. The voice acting was also very good. The animation from Sun Creature Studio did an excellent job of depicting the story in both the present and the past. The addition of the music of the times and of the Mexican soap operas also add to the story.

Flee is a great animated film about a man who feels like he has always had to be on the run. On the run from danger, on the run from authorities, on the run to achieve freedom, and on the run from how he was meant to live and who to love. It’s an eye-opener and a delight to see at the same time.

VIFF 2015 Review: A Flickering Truth

Reels of Afghani film hidden from decades of warfare and political regimes are uncovered for restoration in A Flickering Truth.
Reels of Afghani film hidden from decades of warfare and political regimes are uncovered for restoration in A Flickering Truth.

“When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply replied “then what are we fighting for?”

-popular internet quote

A Flickering Truth is the first documentary I saw at the VIFF. I’m a bit mistrustful of documentaries but this was an eye opener.

The film opens with some Afghani men looking for a job. The job pays lousy even with their pay boosted 4 times the amount of their original offer. The boss, Ibrahim Arify, seems like a dictator giving orders and belittling his workers and his abilities. Then you see what business this is: Afghan Film. Over time, you see what their mission is. Their job is to restore many old films to show the Afghani people on a national tour.

Over time you will see this is no vanity effort. Afghan Film is more than just a film company. It’s a building archiving both the entertainment films and film footage of news events. Inside the building of Afghan Film are films that had to be kept in private rooms and hiding places. We’re dealing with film in a country that has gone through corrupt tyrannous rule for about half a century. The company came about while Afghanistan had a king. The king was friendly and helped the Afghani people mostly live well despite their impoverished conditions. Then he was deposed in a coup d’etat by his uncle in 1973 and it was downhill from then on. More than five years later his uncle was hanged and the Soviets invaded. The Soviets left in 1987 and the Mujahideen took over. Then the Taliban in 1996. After war was declared to oust the Taliban, Afghanistan became a democracy and more freedoms were restored. But not without daily threats on people’s lives that continue today. Even standing in a line-up to vote in an election is a threat on your life. That’s Afghanistan.

Afghan Film was a company that was under thread of the constant regimes and the tyranny that came with it. As we watch Arify get the project under way, we learn what type of films Afghan Film has kept hidden and has ready to show. They show archived footage, mostly in black and white of Afghanistan’s moments of history from military marches on camelback in the 1930’s to footage of the king’s visit to Washington in 1963 and a warm reception from President Kennedy to footage of the royal family swimming at the palace to even the most brutal aftermaths of war and political upheaval. Their final film footage was of the 1996 hanging of President Najibullah by the Taliban.

Afghan Film is not just film footage. They also have archived many entertainment films they’ve had hidden. Many of the films were of war dramas but there were also many romance films. They even archive Afghani films made during the silent era of the 1920’s and even a drama made back in 1936: films that came to be long before Afghan Film was founded.

What Afghan Film was saving this whole time was a part of Afghanistan’s cultural and historical identity. What their saving it all from and why becomes very obvious over time. Seeing of what the films of archive and entertainment contain are easy to see why the various political regimes and especially the Taliban would consider it a threat. We see films of kings and rulers, of luxury, of fields of poppies, of feelings of love, of conscientious thought, and even women without burkas or veils. Seeing the images and one’s knowledge of the Taliban can easily see why the Taliban would consider it a threat. In fact, film or even television entertainment of any kind was not allowed during their control of the entire country. Much of the film we see in the documentary is only a small portion of the film from Afghanistan. Most of Afghanistan’s films have been burned by the Taliban. All those hidden films they bring out and even recover in hiding places are the lucky ones.

We see the importance of saving the films. We also see the huge task of restoring the films and having them ready to show the crowds. It’s a challenge as they can only do so much themselves. Sending them off to foreign countries to do it for them is also a challenge as restoration is not always guaranteed. There’s one scene where one film which was sent to South Korea for restoration makes it back unrestored because the company was too busy The company did send a letter of apology. They show the difficulty of planning the national tour. Sure, the Taliban doesn’t control the whole of Afghanistan anymore but there are many areas especially around the border of Pakistan where Taliban control remains. We’re even reminded of the current situation of Afghanistan when we see the shattered glass of the former Afghan Films president’s apartment from a bomb blast.

The restoration and national exhibition of the films are not just simply a mission but also a mission of personal nature for the past president Isaaq Yousif and his successor Ibrahim Arify. Yousif has been president of the company for many decades. He was orphaned at 13 and was never matched with a woman in his lifetime. The film was his life. We see films he acted in when he was younger. He’s one who has survived the various regimes and civil wars in the country. There was a time the Afghan Film office was even his personal home. Ibrahim Arify was luckier as he fled Afghanistan in the 1980’s to live in Germany. He married an Afghani woman and had three children. His wife and two of his children are afraid to set foot in Afghanistan. Life in Germany helped make Arify a good business man and admires those of his colleagues that stayed behind, even those that were killed. The mission is almost like a ‘passing of the torch’ from Yousif to Arify especially since this happens during the last year of Yousif’s life. We even see Yousif’s grave.

The restoration is completed and the films make their tour. Arify has to return to Germany as Afghanistan is holding an election and foreigners risk having their lives threatened. The tour starts in Kabul and will be an outdoor showing. Security is there. Popcorn is popped. The crowd enjoys what their seeing. The tour visits many town halls and schools and is a huge success and shows promise for the future.

The most revealing moment of the documentary comes at the end when the people are watching the films. All this that has survived regimes and destructive wars. As the films are shown, the cameras focus on the people viewing. The most profound images are those of the children. They’re watching images of times when Afghanistan was prosperous, films of people not afraid to speak their emotions and women not restricted to what they wore. As the children watch, who knows what confidence it will give them towards their own future?

This documentary is a revealing introspect from Pietra Brettkelly. She not only shows us the films but the people behind restoring them and the country that’s it’s taking place. It’s like we’re looking inside-out into Afghanistan, what the country is been through and why this is so important. Hearing Arify and Yousif talk about the country and its history in both its positive and negative aspects sheds a light on what we’re dealing with. Hearing Arify describe the Afghani people as lazy by nature does get you thinking too: “If the Afghani people weren’t so lazy, the Taliban wouldn’t have lasted a week. People think I act like a dictator. You have to be like a dictator to get the people to do their job right.”

Actually that was a quality Brettkelly included where she lets the men in the film tell their story. Even the female actors of films past give a unique introspect. The film is an excellent documentary that appears put together very well. I don’t know if it tells the whole history of Afghani film but it tells a lot. It even presents the events leading to the exhibition in a very good manner. It may appear a bit disorganized at times but it does it very well.

A Flickering Truth may not stand out from many documentaries as we know it but it does show something unique and a story that deserves to be told. It almost makes those words from Churchill, whether he really said them or not, look very true here.