Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Refugee narratives often make for compelling stories. They have built-in, throbbing engines that grapple the heart and enrich the soul. They’re not subtle, instead weighed down by their reality and situated just so to hit every beat of the range of human emotion. “Flee” is no exception and is, in fact, a paragon. 

You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll laugh-cry. If you’re one of the tens of millions of diasporic people of the world, it might just hit home. And if you’re not, you’ll come a little bit closer to knowing what it means to flee.

Animated stories are often said to make best use of the medium when they do something that could not be done in live-action. Usually, this means capturing a particular atmosphere, representing abstract concepts, maintaining verisimilitude in unusual scenes or defying the laws of physics and on-the-ground filmmaking. In “Flee,” the medium is used in a number of these ways (and to great effect), but at the bottom line, it was a pragmatic decision. 

“Flee” is about a real guy — Amin Nawabi. The name is pseudonymous, but Amin is out there, somewhere in the Danish countryside, trouncing around with his husband Kasper and his close personal friend Jonas Poher Rasmussen (“What He Did”), a documentary filmmaker. With Rasmussen’s help, Amin tells a story he has never told anyone. 

The only thing is, some elements of this story aren’t exactly … legal. And all the elements are intensely personal (“never told anyone” is not an exaggeration). To conceal Amin’s identity, he is rendered in simple but realistic 2D animation. Rasmussen is too — he’s not the objective documentarian observer, after all. He’s a close friend and even part of the story. But when Amin tells his tales, the medium allows it to come to vibrant life in a way no reenactment ever could, obscuring in a crucial manner while elevating it all the same. 

Amin grew up in 1980s Kabul. He dances through the streets listening to his Walkman, pining away about Jean-Claude Van Damme. He plays volleyball with his brother. He brushes his sister’s hair as they haggle about celebrity trading cards. But those halcyon days were limited. 

His dad kidnapped, his brother nearly drafted, war incessant — they have no choice but to flee to Russia. And, well … they’re an Afghan family in 1980s Russia. 

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Badgered by corrupt cops and whiling away the days watching Mexican soap operas, they make plans to escape to Sweden. As it turns out, human traffickers aren’t the nicest of people and “escape to Sweden” is not so simple; in fact, it is harrowing.

While Amin’s history often seems a nonstop game of hopscotch between a variety of frying pans and fires, the film doesn’t marinate in the sickness and sadness. Interspersed is footage of modern Amin, animated and likely rotoscoped — cute little slices of life with his doting fiancé Kasper as they go house hunting and prepare for the start of his career as an academic in America. Occasionally the animation becomes a bit more elemental, reducing the scene to charcoal sketches that intimately mirror Amin’s mental state and give life to his more abstract monologues. Archival footage of ’80s and ’90s Afghanistan and Russia is sprinkled in to temper these beguiling flourishes and further ground the animation in reality.

But of course, animation is a tool. As charming as it is, Rasmussen is not the first to animate a documentary either. What elevates the already brilliant, engrossing medium and brings out the jubilant laughs and the sobering cries and the truly visceral laugh-cries (nary a more guttural noise has escaped my lips, let me tell you) is Amin and the strength of his story. 

Rasmussen asks him, “What does the word home mean to you?” Amin’s reply: “It’s someplace safe, somewhere you know you can stay, and you don’t have to move on. It’s not someplace temporary.” 

As a refugee, Amin was without a home. As a gay man, Amin was without a home. And as the subject of “Flee,” Amin can tell the world — in a safe, non-temporary fashion — what it means to be without a home, and what it means to find one.

Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at luskja@umich.edu.