In this article, Wazhmah Osman and Karen Redrobe consider the storytelling conventions of the award-winning animated documentary Flee (2021) in light of the long history (in mainstream and popular media, as well as in academia) of marginalized peoples not being able to tell their own stories and of subaltern groups being positioned as the subjects of films in which white filmmakers and researchers drive the narrative. They consider the hierarchies of power involved with giving and taking voice and question whose perspective the film privileges, and to what effect. Their conversation is rooted in a working collaboration to think cross-culturally about media, gender, sexuality, and different types of violence.

Flee is a primarily animated documentary that recounts the hitherto unspoken story of a gay Afghan man, known in the film by the pseudonym “Amin Nawabi,” who arrived as a refugee in filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Danish hometown when the filmmaker was just fifteen. The two have now been friends for over twenty-five years. Using a dialogic format, they uncover difficult-to-access memories about Amin and his family’s escape from Afghanistan after his father was “disappeared” and discuss the new life that Amin sets up with his Danish boyfriend, Kasper.1

Wazhmah Osman and Karen Redrobe watched Flee independently and then began a shared conversation about authorship, gender, sexuality, race, and refugee narratives. Given the long history in mainstream and popular media, as well as in academia, of marginalized peoples not being able to tell their own stories and of subaltern groups being positioned as the subjects of films in which white filmmakers and researchers drive the narrative, Osman and Redrobe began to think through the storytelling conventions of Flee. They aimed to consider the hierarchies of power involved with giving and taking voice, and to question whose perspective the film privileges, why, and to what effect. Their conversation is rooted in a working collaboration to think cross-culturally about media, gender, sexuality, and different types of violence. What follows is an analysis in the form of a dialogue that merges interests and histories to develop a working model of thinking collaboratively.

Wazhmah Osman:

As an Afghan refugee myself, I think it’s important to start by acknowledging that a number of people I’ve talked to, in the Afghan diaspora and outside of it, people from all over, have gravitated to Flee. They have felt that they could relate to Flee as a film that offers welcome departures from the usual representations of Afghans, South Asians, Middle Easterners, and Muslims seen in the media. Granted, the bar is low, but Nawabi is a complex and likable protagonist.

Karen Redrobe:

The film offers a type of corrective to the “War on Terror” film by introducing a queer Afghan migrant narration, by really humanizing and giving subjective points of view to the main Afghan characters, and by being collaborative in its mode of narration. Yet the experiences of female refugees seems to be marginalized or even erased or refused in the film.


There are some really complex issues in terms of gender, sexuality, misogyny, and sexism. I’m really glad that this film exists and is receiving international attention and acclaim; for me, it also raises questions about other refugee films, particularly those that center women’s perspectives, and about why they have not achieved the same kind of circulation or mainstream success. It requires thinking through how sexism and misogyny and the political economy of the media industry are interlinked. Because ultimately it’s the circulation that gives salience to some stories and points of view and not others.

To offer a personal counterexample: my own codirected film, Postcards from Tora Bora [with Kelly Dolak, 2017], also employed animation and a similarly personal story of fleeing Afghanistan during the Soviet Afghan war. It, too, was very much a collaboration—cofilmed, codirected, and coedited—and also centered on a cross-cultural relationship, though left somewhat ambiguous. The key difference was that it featured two women. It was narrated from my point of view: I wrote the narration and spoke in my own voice, based on my journal entries. Editorial decisions were negotiated between three primary stakeholders: me, Kelly Dolak, and Stephen Jablonsky, who did the animation and also coedited and coproduced it. It was a truly independent labor of love, made with borrowed equipment from NYU and Ramapo College.


Your film was definitely women driven, by you and Kelly, and featured not only your father but also your aunt, who was a prominent figure in the documentary. I remember multiple generations in the film, and a much greater presence of the older woman’s point of view, for example, than in Flee. Your film is important precisely because its portrayal of Afghan girls and women as well as Afghan boys and men differs so dramatically from the kind of human rights documentaries that became common in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center and that focused exclusively on the suffering of Afghan women and girls.

Postcards from Tora Bora employed animation in telling a personal story of escape from Afghanistan.

Postcards from Tora Bora employed animation in telling a personal story of escape from Afghanistan.

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As a documentary like Behind the Veil: Afghan Women under Fundamentalism [Richard Wolf, 2001] shows, the speech of Afghan women and girls is often made inaudible by a voice-over provided by a figure well-known in the Western media—in this case, Jojo Sydenham. When this film provides context for the suffering it depicts, it comes in a passive form that makes dates and agents hard to pin down. I was so struck by the contrast between this mode of presenting the experiences of people living in twenty-first-century Afghanistan and the one you and Dolak offer in Postcards from Tora Bora, which depicts such a range of Afghan and Afghan-American voices, many of them managing to be humorous in spite of it all. Also remarkable to me in your film is the way that complex conversations among men and women, old and young, Afghans and Afghan-Americans as well as Anglo-Americans emerge in the context of dynamic and playful visual strategies that help viewers listen and see differently.

There’s a comparable use of humor, animated experimentation, and attention to the experiences of women from different generations in the short film The FBI Blew Up My Ice Skates [Sara Zia Ebrahimi, 2016], which depicts the impact of the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1980 on an eight-year-old immigrant living in the United States. Also, there’s the brilliant work of the British-Iranian director Maryam Mohajer, who repeatedly explores different aspects of life in the context of war, revolution, and immigration.


Yes, these films are in sharp contrast to the refugee narratives that usually reach a popular audience. Post-9/11 there were so many films—including Beneath the Veil [Cassian Harrison, 2001], Kandahar [Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2001], and Osama [Siddiq Barmak, 2004]—that fall into the classic trope of what Ella Shohat and Robert Stam call the “rape and rescue” narrative.”2 These films are directed and produced by men but feature stories of Afghan women and girls, with first- and second-person narration in the case of Beneath the Veil and Kandahar. They all also perpetuate the dominant American discourse of Muslim women as victims of their repressive societies.3

Kandahar follows the story of an Afghan-Canadian woman, Nafas, who escaped Afghanistan with her family during the Soviet invasion in 1979. Now she must return to Afghanistan to rescue her sister from the oppressions of the Taliban. Her sister, who has been maimed by a land mine, has vowed to commit suicide by the next lunar eclipse. Osama, about a young girl who has to disguise herself as a boy to earn money for her desperate widowed mother and grandmother, is similarly tragic once her is ruse is up and the Taliban discover she’s a girl. It was so tragic, in fact, that Colin Powell said in a public statement, “This movie will sear your soul….But in the end it will teach you why president Bush is right about waging war on the terrorists.”4 Beneath the Veil features the Afghan-British journalist Saira Shah, who secretly goes back to Afghanistan with the help of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan [RAWA] to uncover the Taliban’s violence against women.

These films all show glimpses of Afghan women’s resistance and agency, such as the women teachers who bravely ran underground schools, the women doctors who bravely practiced clandestinely, and the women activists like those in RAWA who bravely documented the events. Yet in their overwhelming emphasis on violence against women, including the use of slow motion and graphic imagery and the showing of the protagonists’ numerous failures, they fail to do justice to the reality of the women’s situations then and now.5

Postcards from Tora Bora, because it wasn’t beholden to corporate sponsors or major networks, offered the liberty to highlight our journey to Afghanistan as we experienced it. Postcards not only highlights our agency as filmmakers but also highlights other people’s stories and points of view along the way. It shows Kelly, my aunt, my cousin, and me exploring different neighborhoods of Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan that I remembered from my childhood, speaking to women, men, and children. It features on-the-ground interviews with anyone who wanted to talk to us and those we wanted to talk to as well, including passersby, shopkeepers, cabbies, and teachers, among others. Audiences have been surprised that women were able to freely walk around Afghanistan, filming and recording. The film includes these present-day scenes with flashbacks to Super 8 films of my family’s prewar life and major political moments that threw the country into a half century of war.


Like Flee, your film was about the plight of one family within the larger context of the nation’s trauma. There are so many remarkable and surprising scenes in your film, such as the beautiful interview with a man who founded a peace museum in Kabul that displays the international roster of bomb shells and mines he has found in Afghanistan; your aunt’s direct questioning of a group of young men on the outskirts of Kabul about whether, and if so why, it is strange for them to see women walking around independently, and about whether they know the history of Afghanistan or not; and your inquiries into what middle-aged Afghan men think about the American military presence. Your film is also striking for the way it presents a view of Kabul and its surrounding areas from a three-pronged female perspective: that of Kelly Dolak, a white North American; that of your aunt, an Afghan older woman; and your own Afghan-American point of view. This dismantles the oversimplification of “women” in the Afghan context.


The general consensus from buyers and distributors in 2007 was that our storytelling conventions, such as the use of animation and the back-and-forth between flashbacks and the present day, were too “experimental.”


I know that the film encountered resistance to its more experimental techniques, the more indirect methods and narratives that Christian Rossipal—with reference to films such as To Whom It May Concern [Zakaria Mohamed Ali, 2013], My New European Life [Abou Bakar Sidibé and Moritz Siebert, 2019], Midnight Traveler [Hassan Fazili, 2019], and Purple Sea [Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed, 2020]—calls “the poetics of refraction.” Rossipal illustrates how aesthetic autonomy can create new frames for thinking about refugee experiences and indeed might also block entrenched or automatic ways of thinking about the topic.6

Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s film It Must Be Heaven [2019] is a good example. While many mainstream films about migration focus on the suffering of migrants in their countries of origin and their good fortune in arriving in Western Europe or North America, Suleiman describes his recent film as “trying to say that the conflict has extended its tentacles to everywhere else around the world and that there’s a global ‘Palestinianization’ of the state of things…. I mean, the state of exception, the police state and the violence are now like a familiar common ground everywhere we go. The tension and the anxiety are now practically everywhere and it’s no longer just a local conflict.”7 The moves this film makes—refusing to allow the United States or Western Europe to play a heavenly role in refugee narratives or to stand in metonymically for “the Good Life,” and linking present suffering to histories of colonialism—both of these strike me as most important. And it’s a comedy to boot!


I think in some cases, the term “experimental” is used as a means of writing off works that do not uphold dominant worldviews. The conventions in Postcards, such as the use of animation alongside or over documentary footage, certainly were innovative. Postcards was released at around the same time as the acclaimed documentary memoirs Persepolis [Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, 2007] and Waltz with Bashir [Ari Folman, 2008], the films that arguably put animated documentary on the map. I think gatekeepers didn’t know how to market it. When women are at the helm, especially when one of them is nonwhite, and there are no big-name directors or celebrities, creative leaps are not necessarily framed as innovative.

The Black Latina director Tamara Shogaolu raises similar concerns in her article “Can Black Women Directors Be Geniuses?”8 She, too, found a lot of similarities in form and content between Flee and her documentary Half a Life (2017), about an Egyptian gay refugee. She, too, highlights the way that institutional gendered and racial disparities and discriminations contributed to the success of Flee but not to that of films by women that have dealt with the same topic and used animation as an innovative tool within the documentary form. She writes:

My team was a primarily BIPOC team, which included LGBTQ+ people from the Middle East and North Africa. The Flee team, led by white men, has instead received acclaim for championing diversity and is being praised for its innovative approach in animation. Its director has been called a “genius,” with acclaimed directors like Bong Joon Ho calling it the “the most moving piece of cinema I saw this year.” … I’ve been increasingly asked if Half a Life (2017) was influenced by Flee (2021); I found it interesting that the inherent assumption was that I must have been inspired by the film, despite having completed my film six years prior…. By design, there is a critical issue in the exclusion of women directors, even more so of Black/Latinx women, in animation. It’s not that we don’t exist—I am fortunate enough to work on a regular basis with BIPOC and other systematically excluded artists. What is true, is that we don’t receive the access to be geniuses.9

Osman’s aunt asks direct questions in Postcards from Tora Bora.

Osman’s aunt asks direct questions in Postcards from Tora Bora.

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Shogaolu’s question, “Can Black Women Directors Be Geniuses?,” recalls Linda Nochlin’s question, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” from 1971. Nochlin similarly highlights the violent creative barriers that are upheld by what she calls the “golden-nugget theory of genius and the free-enterprise conception of individual achievement.”10 It still seems pertinent to reiterate Nochlin’s key insight today, not only with regard to creative industries and institutions, but also, more broadly, for the way the evaluation of supposedly innate academic ability so frequently predetermines a person’s future educational opportunities. This logic of what Nochlin calls “fairy tale and self-fulfilling prophecy” that turns a blind eye to the question of who has access to personal, social, and institutional structures of support is designed to allow people with privilege to hold on to it. But Nochlin challenges readers to move beyond disadvantage in order to focus on “destroy[ing] false consciousness” and to take part in “the creation of institutions in which clear eyed thought—and true greatness—are challenges open to anyone.”

The arguments that Shogaolu and you are both making demonstrate that the question of who is allowed to make the creative leaps and experiment with conventions is really one about gender and racial power and privilege. Film history often tracks the production of a film, but to understand how this issue of “genius formation” operates requires a “film pre-history.” There’s also the question of how star power functions in the documentary world. When your film was on the festival circuit, for instance, one of the suggestions you received was that you should bring in a major star to do the voice-over and replace your voice—in your own story—with the voice of somebody like Angelina Jolie.


When Postcards screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, it was in the same category with documentaries that were narrated by celebrities, including Tommy Lee Jones narrating The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez [Kieran Fitzgerald, 2007], about a Mexican migrant who was killed by US Marines, and Isabella Rossellini narrating The Last Jews of Libya [Vivienne Roumani, 2007]—both great documentaries that perhaps lent themselves to outside narrators. But it didn’t make sense in the case of our film.


Flee is interesting in this regard. While it does not have a celebrity narrator in the Danish version of the film—“Amin” speaks in his own voice, just as Rasmussen plays himself—the English dubbed version has Rasmussen voiced by Game of Thrones’s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and “Amin” by Riz Ahmed (both stars are also executive producers of the film).11 These disparate casting choices for the Danish and English versions suggest that a star presence is more important for English-language audiences than for others. Furthermore, while Ahmed has won Academy Awards, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes and has appeared in mainstream films, he is also a British-Pakistani actor, rapper, and activist working on behalf of Syrian and Rohingya refugee children. He’s the first Muslim ever to be nominated for an Academy Award; and the UK researchers Sadia Habib and Shafiuddean Choudry adopted his name for the Muslim equivalent to “the Bechdel Test” that they developed: “the Riz Test,” to evaluate the representation of Muslims in the media.12

For these reasons, I think the star component in Flee communicates with some complexity. But the gender dynamics of the film are less complicated. In Flee, the sense of agency, mobility, capacity, desire, and voice all seem to be mediated through and belong to the male characters. Amin’s mother barely speaks, and when she does, it is to balk at the idea of entering the ship’s belly, with the words “No, no, no.” The sisters are almost as speechless and lacking in personal agency as their mother. And then, in the woodland scene, there’s a whole group of refugees traveling, including Amin, and a grandmother being carried by the younger men of her family, where she appears to be a heavy burden. The female characters are really caricatures who emerge almost as agency-less immobile objects to be moved by men, almost as failed migrants, lacking mobility in a way. I don’t know if you have thoughts about that.

In Flee, Amin’s mother balks at the prospect of entering the ship’s hull. Courtesy of Final Cut for Real.

In Flee, Amin’s mother balks at the prospect of entering the ship’s hull. Courtesy of Final Cut for Real.

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It’s definitely centered on Amin. Amin’s story is that of a queer child and then of a gay Afghan man: his desires, his fears, and his resilience lead the narrative. His mother’s and sisters’ perspectives are secondary. The women tend to lack agency. There are multiple scenes in which the experiences of displacement and arduous journeys are too difficult for the women to bear. They fall back into the victim trope: in need of saving and rescuing. After his sisters’ harrowing experience getting out, they’re completely traumatized and comatose to the point where they can’t even talk.

Amin and his brothers, on the other hand, are positioned as having to get the sisters out first because they’re much more vulnerable. And there’s the scene in the van when it’s insinuated that the Afghan girl is going to be raped by the Russian police officers. I don’t mean to diminish the violence, including sexual violence and the PTSD associated with being or becoming a refugee, that’s very real. Rather, I want to highlight how this film is gendered.

I have memories of my family’s journey out of Afghanistan. Both my grandfathers had passed away and my father was a prisoner of war who was released and escaped before us. I left with one of my grandmothers and mother. I’ve never seen them exhibit so much strength as during those times, climbing mountains at nighttime, carrying my younger sisters to get us out. Before and during our escape, I saw both of my grandmothers negotiating with traffickers and smugglers. I’d never seen that side of them until our escape from Kabul by foot, but they rose to the occasion, despite hitting serious low points. And we rarely see any stories like that about refugees, whether on big or little screens, because they don’t conform to dominant tropes of women’s victimhood and fragility.

Due to histories of colonialism and neoimperialism, the Afghan, Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian women and girls are rendered as victims. And that’s the case here, too.13 Other mainstream American films that feature stories of refugees are the Academy Award–nominated House of Sand and Fog [Vadim Perelman, 2003] and The Kite Runner [Marc Forster, 2007], both based on best-selling books. They, too, center the stories of recent male refugees—an Iranian and an Afghan, respectively—while relegating the women to minor roles. The exceptions are the following excellent films, all helmed by Middle Eastern women: Persepolis, Salt of the Sea [Annemarie Jacir, 2008], and Amreeka [2009] and May in the Summer [2013], both by Cherien Dabis. I would put Miral [2010] in the exceptional category as well. It was directed by Julian Schnabel but written by Rula Jebreal. The recent genre-defying Everything Everywhere All at Once [Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, 2022], though not a refugee story, is refreshing in centering the inner worlds of an immigrant Chinese woman (played by Michelle Yeoh) and making her into a Hong Kong–style superhero.

Amin’s sisters are depicted as speechless and lacking in agency in Flee. Courtesy of Final Cut for Real.

Amin’s sisters are depicted as speechless and lacking in agency in Flee. Courtesy of Final Cut for Real.

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This tendency to center male narratives in films about refugees is complicated by the fact that Flee centers a queer man’s migrant narrative, even as I keep in mind Jasbir Puar’s critiques of “homonationalism,” which highlight how “homosexual sexual exceptionalism” can support “forms of heteronormativity and the class, racial, and citizenship privileges they require,” thus linking “the recognition of homosexual subjects, both legally and representationally, to the national and transnational political agendas of U.S. imperialism.”14 Though it’s important to note that Flee is a Danish and not an American film, Puar stresses that “U.S. sexual exceptionalism has its European counterparts … which expand, contrast, and often fuel U.S. homonormative formations,” adding, “The echoes and divergences among locations are crucial to keep in mind because of the varied colonial histories, distinct migration trajectories, and class differences between U.S. Muslims and European Muslims.”15 These distinct histories and trajectories are missing in Flee. Nevertheless, in his recent anthology, Queering the Migrant in Contemporary European Cinema, James S. Williams compellingly shows the importance of bringing the queer migrant forward as a figure who is sometimes made “doubly abject” and seen as the “bad migrant,” the sexual migrant who is leaving not because of war and famine but for other reasons.16

By telling the story of a queer migrant Afghan man who has felt unable to tell his story before, and doing so in a sympathetic way, Flee makes an important intervention. Yet it retains those dynamics of victimizing and silencing, erasing both a longer and more global history and the experiences of female migrants in the process. The film is full of Amin’s desires, from his star crushes, crush on the boy in the van, or things that he wants or doesn’t want to do, to his intellectual aspirations, with references to his Princeton postdoc and career, or his enjoyment of the queer nightclub scene. None of that has anything to do with the female characters, including his own family.


Yes, it does show a sympathetic portrayal of a queer Afghan man. I think those aspects are refreshing. In fact, in my research, I found that Afghan women have inscribed their desires into dramatic serials, homosocial all-women theater, and new Afghan women-made films that position Afghan women as heroes of their own narratives, despite their harsh realities. For example, Saba Sahar—an actress, director, and police officer—has created her own film franchise, Saba Films. In her films, she portrays a powerful range of characters: a general, a police sergeant, even a traditional horseback-riding woman warrior. Some women also find both local dramatic serials such as Khate Sewom and international dramatic serials, especially Indian and Turkish ones, valuable for generating debates over domestic and gender issues at home and in the public arena. The gun-toting villains in Indian serials, usually sisters-, mothers-, and aunts-in-law who scheme against the protagonist couples, were particularly fun and empowering for many Afghan women. These genres offer a subversive space where women can escape and challenge the male gaze and patriarchal social order and control.

Amin and Kasper enjoy the tranquility of the Danish countryside in Flee. Courtesy of Final Cut for Real.

Amin and Kasper enjoy the tranquility of the Danish countryside in Flee. Courtesy of Final Cut for Real.

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There are other issues, too, apparent in Flee in regard to Amin’s coming to “the West,” and in particular to Northern Europe. It romanticizes certain Western and Northern European cultural norms in an assimilationist and reductive manner. What stood out for me was how the concepts of home and family were defined and delimited. In the film, the gay couple is the primary family unit. Amin is seen with his Afghan family in some scenes and then with his Danish boyfriend. But the two are very separate.

I cannot speak for all Afghans, but the concept of family is much more expansive and integrated for Afghans I know. They tend to live in extended family units that are not dissimilar to queer family constructions that aren’t defined solely by the nuclear family unit. Then there’s the film’s concept of “home,” which also privileges a suburban nuclear family unit. For me and other refugees I know, the concept of home isn’t fixed. The film somewhat pathologizes immigrants who do not entirely assimilate and accept their adopted country as their only home, as if they lack fidelity and loyalty. This is most palpable in the scenes where Amin seems to shun both Kasper’s desire to “settle down” and the supposed tranquillity of the Danish countryside, but also when he temporarily leaves Denmark for Princeton. In fact, most immigrants’ concepts of home are much more complicated in their multinationality.


This reminds me of the opening of Flee, when the filmmaker asks Amin for his definition of home and he says that home is someplace safe, somewhere you know you can stay, where you don’t have to move on. This is a narrative about forced mobility, so I understand the expressed desire for a fixed home. But the film belies the possibility of experiencing home and family in motion: it maps these terms onto pretty rigid normative ideas of marriage and owning/occupying property, featuring bucolic scenes in Denmark. In contrast, your documentary highlights the lushness of the home country you had to leave. For you, there is a sense of loss and nostalgia for the home country.


I always say: no one wants to become a refugee, nobody wants to leave their homeland and go someplace where everything is unfamiliar and start over, unless things get really bad in their home country. Because Afghanistan has been subsumed by a half century of war and bloodshed, people think that it’s always been a foreboding place of death and destruction and lawlessness. But it was once peaceful, beautiful, and lively, which is what Dolak, Jablonsky, and I were trying to conjure up through home movies and animated travel brochures.

There are many documentaries that evocatively focus on the profound loss of Afghan culture, music, art, and film due to the destruction of decades of war, including Breaking the Silence: Music in Afghanistan [Simon Broughton, 2002], Dr. Sarmast’s Music School [Polly Watkins and Beth Frey, 2012], Return of the Nightingales [John Baily 2013], A Flickering Truth [Pietra Brettkelly, 2015], What We Left Unfinished [Mariam Ghani, 2019], and The Sharp Edge of Peace [Roya Sadat, forthcoming]. Like Postcards, these films have been relatively successful in film-festival circuits, especially ethnographic film festivals, but have not had much commercial success in terms of broadcasting and theatrical distribution. Not incidentally, Flee’s focus is instead on what is gained in the new home; it projects the West as a land of opportunity. But refugees can have very uneven experiences of so-called opportunities, including those offered by the research university.


Yes, Amin’s Princeton postdoc is interesting in this light. He emerges as a “model refugee” on the one hand, both for his educational and professional success and for his willingness to give those things up to settle in isolation with his Danish husband, Kasper, and their cat. But the film also raises the specter of a question, however subdued, about whether the structure of short-term academic opportunities/displacements best serves the interests of the scholar-refugee or their family life.


As a “model refugee” and gay man who transitions and assimilates to life in Europe, Amin appeases Western liberal sensibilities. What Flee leaves out is the difficulty and hardships of being a refugee in a new country: the xenophobia, discrimination, and Islamophobia, which create enormous barriers to employment, housing, and a decent life. Throughout Europe, and of course the United States, right-wing political establishments are coming back into power. Yet, Flee not only omits those aspects of Europe but represents the continent as a truly advanced utopic space of liberation for all races, women, and LGBTQ people.


Exactly! The color scheme in Copenhagen evokes Legoland. And that evolves into the queer neon colors of the nightclub and the bucolic scenes of the garden and marital home. That bright color is so sharply contrasted with the colors of Moscow and Estonia, which emerge as places of traumatic experience. But there are multiple ideologies embedded in the color schemes that are worth thinking about when considering why this film has been so popular in Western Europe and North America. There’s never a sense that Western and Northern Europe—or Princeton—might also be places where refugee horror and terror and violence are experienced.

The problems of the postarrival refugee emerge in Flee as internal, rooted in a past elsewhere, not as structural, historical, or of the present. They emerge as fixable through speech and personal relationships and filmmaking, but the idea that these factors alone provide the necessary answers is a fantasy. The film is quite nationalist and defensive in failing to give any visibility to the European and North American histories that have rendered some spaces unlivable and that have dictated who has the right to exercise unbridled movement across the world and who does not.17

Copenhagen evokes Legoland in an aerial shot from Flee. Courtesy of Final Cut for Real.

Copenhagen evokes Legoland in an aerial shot from Flee. Courtesy of Final Cut for Real.

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It’s mind-boggling that there’s no representation of American and European xenophobia in Flee, especially with the reanimation of fascist right-wing movements on both sides of the Atlantic. The entire history of the Cold War as well as the brutal invasion of Ukraine this year make it much easier for filmmakers to present Western audiences with representations of Russian xenophobia and violence toward refugees than to offer depictions of US, EU, or NATO culpability and discrimination against migrants.18 Whether through covert dirty wars and coups or overt operations and war, there is a long history of Western interventions that have destabilized many regions of the world, generating huge global refugee populations.

Unlike the mainstream media portrayals, when you arrive as a refugee, it’s not as if the red carpet rolls out for you and society welcomes you with open arms.19 Due to discrimination and policy impediments, many people do not land on their feet. People who had professional jobs and careers in their home countries where they were doctors and teachers and engineers ended up toiling in difficult and sometimes dangerous menial positions, barely making any money and without any benefits. It’s something people often talk about in terms of the hope and burden being passed on to the second generation.


Flee shows this partly through the older brother, who comes first to Sweden and works as a cleaner. It shows that he is not being paid well and saves all his money to smuggle the rest of his family, but his work interactions with Swedish people are never shown. As a cleaner, he is kept from view. Amin has a very different kind of path, while his sisters are only ever shown in the kitchen and the apartment after arrival.


There are gaping holes. I wish there were more on the brother’s not-so-“model” immigrant experience in Denmark and the geopolitics of war and the refugee crisis.


While you have been thinking about the “grammar” of the film, with its use of both first- and second-person narratives, I have been thinking about the ways that audiences get access to women’s experiences in Flee in the light of Jeremi Szaniawski’s critique of Western media outlets’ obscene display of migrants’ suffering and death.20 In Flee, this particularly bothered me in its scenes at the Estonian shelter, with women and children who are never named and about whose pasts and futures the audience learns nothing, even though Rasmussen was clearly trying to convey the conditions under which migrants have to live. As a result, these women and children become generic.

There’s a very strange moment at the half-hour mark where Amin closes his eyes, something that Flee often uses to channel the viewer into his first-person experience. Yet at this moment in the film, this transportation into a first-person point of view happens when Amin is describing his sisters’ experiences, which he did not share. Amin becomes their vehicle, the consciousness through which the audience experiences his sisters’ experiences, as if their lives have been swallowed by his. It’s a dynamic that is troubling.


From what I’ve read, the real Amin—since “Amin” is a protective pseudonym—was involved in the filmmaking process, including in the process of creating the animation and developing the script. This speaks to the film’s flip-flopping between first-person and second-person narration to tell Amin’s story, albeit not always through his perspective.

Flee’s Danish director, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, is also the narrator of the story. This narrative device is what enables Amin’s story to be told while being sensitive to his choice to remain anonymous due to the dangers of revealing his sexuality. At the same time, the device of white interlocutors helping refugees tell their stories raises questions: Would Amin’s story be salient, accessible, or translatable to Western audiences if he were telling it himself, if there were no white director as interlocutor? Whose point of view and cultural norms are privileged in this double retelling of a story that is a combination of first-person and second-person narration?

Another Afghan refugee story that is getting a lot of attention now is a book by Matthieu Aikins, The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees. Although this is not yet a film, aspects of the book model a way forward for collaboration and complex multilayered storytelling narratives. Aikins chronicles the escape to Europe of his friend Omar by joining him on the harrowing journey.21 Aikins is self-reflective about his positionality. Half Japanese and half white, he discusses his decision to pass for an Afghan from the Hazara ethnic group. Importantly, his book also provides space to explore the incredible story of Omar’s mother, Maryam.


In Flee, the structure is that of a private reveal that gives the viewer the feeling that you’re getting access to “the refugee’s truth,” especially when it includes an animated image of the recording set-up and the conversations Amin wants to have “off camera.” This is quite voyeuristic, especially as the therapeutic framing makes the spectatorial experience akin to sitting in on somebody’s analysis session. It feels extremely invasive to me. Also, it seems to imply that somehow the act of watching this film participates in Amin’s healing process.

There’s something very strange about the difference between the film’s represented and implied camera position. Recall that this largely animated film perpetuates the fiction that it is a live-action documentary that is being filmed as Amin speaks. Primarily Amin is seen talking to the camera in close-up against the backdrop of a red and blue carpet, a talking-head trope that is familiar from other documentaries.

But if you look closely, you realize that these are actually shots of Amin lying down on the pseudo–analytic couch. The camera repeatedly and centrally depicted in the frame is positioned at the side of the couch, and only occasionally is there a glimpse of an overhead camera. But Amin’s talking head against that particular backdrop would have had to be “filmed”—to go along with the live-action fiction—from a bird’s-eye view above the therapeutic couch on which Amin is lying.

No analyst would look at the prone patient in the way that the film’s audience is invited to stare at Amin. Rasmussen tricks the viewer by turning the image on its axis by ninety degrees to make it seem as if viewers are listening to a man who is sitting up, which suggests a more equal relationship than seems to be the case. But think about what it means to watch or make a whole documentary looking down on somebody as if they’re on an operating table or, as you once said, under a microscope or on a stretcher. It’s such a power-charged point of view, this aerial shot.

Eerily, it’s also the point of view of the trafficker as he’s pushing people down into the belly of the of the boat.


And of the drone operator. In “War on Terror” media, it’s a common trope to frame Middle Easterners through just such a top-down gaze, what Roger Stahl calls the “weaponized gaze,” through the crosshairs of aerial bombers and long-distance snipers.22


Indeed. This is a point of view on refugees that Christian Rossipal has identified as troubling and that he describes as “drone shots from above to imply a bird’s-eye view of the global phenomenon of displacement.”23 Yet in Flee there is something that seems to be an intimate point of view, a tête-à-tête, that is actually an aerial point of view in disguise.


Rasmussen wants the audience to see the intimacy between him and his friend and to be privy to Amin’s innermost thoughts. Amin is simultaneously pathologized for his reluctance to choose the boyfriend, cat, and house in Denmark and miraculously healed through the filmmaking process.

In interviews Rasmussen talks about the arduous and long process of getting his childhood friend Amin to open up. It’s complicated because, although it sounds like Amin was involved in the filmmaking process, he is clearly being dissected in a way. Whether it’s a weaponized gaze or a medical gaze, the camera holds a position of power over him—and it’s the position of the machinery of the first-world state over the rest of the world as well. Perhaps, through the filmmaking and friendship, the director as friend helped Amin realize and overcome some of his hang-ups. But Rasmussen may have also foreclosed other possibilities of home and family in the particular way that he shaped Amin’s narrative, albeit in collaboration with Amin.


This point calls for a return to the key question: whose point of view, whose voice, is being privileged? The worldview and ideology presented in Flee belong to the director/filmmaker who frames it, both in the ways that Rasmussen positions Amin Nawabi and what Rasmussen as narrator says in the film. Amin Nawabi has agency, but his voice is not that which gives meaning to his life story; instead, he is the illustrative and emotive subject, unable to see the larger view and connect the dots. This is a common trope that maintains the hegemonic dichotomy between the filmmaker/scholar and subject/object.


It’s also canny in terms of bringing the audience in. The viewer is privy to a very intimate and painful story that has not been shared before. Rasmussen worked diligently for a number of years to get Amin to open up. Viewers are given the impression that this is the first time that these conventions have been employed to reveal such a story, whereas Bella Honess Roe notes that there have been a number of these types of animated refugee documentaries.24

One important precedent that she discusses is a short Swedish animated documentary, Hidden (Hanna Heilborn and David Aronowitsch with Mats Johansson, 2002), which tells the story of Giancarlo, a hidden refugee child.25 Honess Roe points out that the makers of this film, which, like Flee, begins life as a recorded interview, turn to animation in part to supplement the absence of a visual record of the refugee’s testimonial and in part, as in Flee, albeit for different reasons, to protect the anonymity of the refugee.26 Flee was able to attract the level of attention that it did, and make questionable claims for breaking new ground, in part because of the bias against short-form cinema that made earlier efforts less visible to a broad audience.

Perhaps what is so appealing about Flee to US and Western and Northern European audiences is the idea that Amin can embody the refugee experience. And that if you can have a happy ending for that one character, there’s a kind of fantasy that maybe things aren’t so bad, that the solution to the problems being depicted can be achieved at a personal rather than a structural level. It is reminiscent of Rossipal’s description of the type of documentary refugee characters who are “made to embody the crisis itself, whether as victims to be humanized or as a problem to be solved.”27 In the Film Quarterly webinar on migration, filmmaker Dagmawi Yimer observed that through the genre of the refugee documentary, viewers become very familiar with what the refugee feels and has experienced, so familiar that they become “saturated” with the genre.28 While Yimer calls for a shift away from stories about “the phenomenon” of migration and toward “single stories,” he also highlights the problem of what he calls “the same story with different faces.” Too often, he suggests, migration films inform viewers about the politics and the suffering of migrants, but say little to nothing about what the migrant thinks about the conditions that lead to forced migration in the first place. I find this framing helpful as I reflect on the role of the personal narrative in Flee.


There are so many different refugee experiences and stories and journeys. Most are not told, or if they are, they don’t reach wide audiences. I am glad that Flee has enabled Amin Nawabi’s story to reach all corners of the globe. Yet with the rare ones like Flee that make it to the mainstream and cross over globally, it’s important to ask why: what are they highlighting and what are they excluding from the frame?

In the case of Flee, the structural geopolitical conditions that created multiple waves of Afghan refugees are left out. Undoubtedly with the ongoing wars and crises throughout the world, more and more refugee stories and voices will emerge. Whether through critical discourse or film festivals or grants or other opportunities, I hope there can be a space for more diverse refugee voices to narrate messier, and more complex stories that do not readily reinforce the ways that Western nation-states have positioned themselves and others. In the West, people want to believe their societies have advanced in championing human rights (including gender, sexuality, and race) and that there’s empathy and compassion for all people. Certainly there are many compassionate and progressive people fighting for human rights for marginalized people, but there are also many fighting against that. There’s a gap between the ideals and realities that demand to be represented and the absence of diversity in regards to the people at the helm in the realms of writing, editing, and directing. Hopefully this dialogue represents one important step in closing that gap. This is the next task for documentary.


Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 141.


Scholars from a variety of disciplines have critiqued these media for their overwhelming portrayal of Afghan women as victims. See Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783–90; Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood, “Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency,” Anthropological Quarterly 75, no. 2 (Spring 2002): 339–54; and William Maley, “Women and Public Policy in Afghanistan: A Comment,” World Development 24, no. 1 (January 1996): 203–6.


See Richard Lei, “The Reliable Source,” Washington Post, February 19, 2004,


Wazhmah Osman, “Contentious Births: Modernity and Gender Rights in Afghanistan” (master’s thesis, New York University, 2005). For later discussions, see Wazhmah Osman, Television and the Afghan Culture Wars: Brought to You by Foreigners, Warlords, and Activists (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2020).


Christian Rossipal, “Poetics of Refraction: Mediterranean Migration and New Documentary Forms,” Film Quarterly 74, no. 3 (Spring 2021): 35–45.


Kaleem Aftab, “Elia Suleiman, Director of It Must Be Heaven (2019),” Cineuropa, May 25, 2019,


Tamara Shogaolu, “Can Black Women Directors Be Geniuses?,” April 8, 2022,




Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (1971),” in Linda Nochlin, Women, Art, and Power (New York: Harper and Row, 1988): 146–56,


Leo Barraclough, “Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau Board Sundance Animated Documentary ‘Flee’ (EXLUSIVE),’ Variety, January 22, 2021,


“Riz Ahmed,” See also “‘Riz Test’ Launched to Evaluate Muslim Representation in Films and TV,” Express Tribune, September 25, 2018,


For a recent account of the process of organizing evacuation from Kabul, see Fatemeh Shams, “Notes from Another Exodus: The Four-Month Struggle to Evacuate Afghan Poets and Scholars,” in “Decades of Fire: New Writing from the Middle East and North Africa,” guest edited by Huda Fakhreddine, special issue, Michigan Quarterly Review 61, no. 2 (Spring 2022): 375–89.


Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 9.


Puar, 11.


James S. Williams, “Queering the Migrant: Being Beyond Borders,” in Queering the Migrant in Contemporary European Cinema, ed. James S. Williams (London and New York: Routledge, 2021): 3-30; 9. Williams participated in Film Quarterly’s migration webinar.


Lisa Abend’s discussion of the film in the New York Times references Denmark’s hard line on asylum seekers compared with other Northern European countries, noting that its government began “drastically limiting the number of asylum seekers it accepted and the benefits they received, as well as passing legislation that required them to hand over valuables.” She then quotes Rasmussen as stating, “In the beginning, of course I wanted to tell my friend’s story, but there was a political aspect to it. That became less so because the debate here was so harsh and polarized. I didn’t want to be part of that.” Lisa Abend, “A Refugee’s Harrowing Story, Finally Told through Animation,” New York Times, November 26, 2021,


In his “Director’s Statement,” Rasmussen notes that he comes from a Jewish family, and that his “ancestors fled Russia in the early 20th century to escape persecution and pogroms,” suggesting that Rasmussen’s depiction of Russia in Flee may be inflected by his own family history as well as by Amin’s memories. “Director’s Statement,” Flee, press notes, 3,


See, for example, the CBS sitcom The United States of Al (CBS, 2021–22), which also portrays a welcoming refugee arrival and somewhat seamless integration. Wazhmah Osman, Helena Zeweri, and Seelai Karzai, “The Fog of the Forever War with a Laugh Track in United States of Al,” MRP, May 26, 2021,


Jeremi Szaniawski, “Integration, Perforce?: (De)queering, (De)abjectifying, and Victimising the Migrant and Minority Figure in Contemporary European Cinema,” in Queering the Migrant in Contemporary European Cinema, ed. James S. Williams (London and New York: Routledge, 2021): 215–28, esp. 227.


Full disclosure: Aikins is a friend, whom I first met in Kabul during one of my early fieldwork trips.


Roger Stahl, Through the Crosshairs: War, Visual Culture, and the Weaponized Gaze (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018).


Rossipal, “Poetics of Refraction,” 37.


Bella Honess Roe, “Flee: ‘Humanizing Anonymity,’” April 2022,


Bella Honess Roe, “Absence, Excess and Epistemological Expansion: Towards a Framework for the Study of Animated Documentary,” in “Making It (Un)real: Contemporary Theories and Practices in Documentary Animation,” special issue, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6, no. 3 (November 2011): 215–30; see esp. 227. For a discussion of Flee as a “visual portrayal of an interview,” see Bilal Qureshi, “The Radio of Cinema: Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee,” Film Quarterly 75, no. 4 (Summer 2022): 73.


Rossipal, “Poetics of Refraction,” 35.


The webinar is available at