By Robert Koehler

Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the Danish co-writer and director of Flee, met an Afghan refugee in high school. He’s maintained a friendship with him ever since, but realized at some point that he didn’t really know him. Rasmussen’s heartfelt yet gimmicky attempt at understanding him better isn’t as failed as the 20-year US war in Afghanistan, but like that misbegotten, now mercifully ended debacle, Flee illustrates how little the West can fathom of Afghanistan and the emotional and social realities of refugees.

To conceal his friend’s identity, Rasmussen calls his friend “Amin Nawabi,” and we soon learn the reason for the subterfuge. Amin tells Rasmussen his harrowing life story as if he were a patient in a talking-therapy session, and the story surely contains many elements of truth: Amin, for instance, gradually realized growing up, play-dressing in his mother’s clothes, that he was gay. However, many other aspects of his story ring as dubious, if not as outright lies. This “Amin” is the quintessential unreliable narrator.

What are we supposed to do with this? Rasmussen doesn’t really come up with interesting solutions to detangle his knotty conception. Beyond the fictitious name, the mannered theatrical storytelling device, and a point of view we can’t trust, the movie adds the most problematic layer of all: the characters and action are rotoscoped for the “serious” animated effect that was deployed far more successfully in Waiting for Bashir. This might spark the viewer’s attention for a few minutes, but the impact wears off fast, and ultimately only further distances us from Amir by rendering him an aesthetic object. Why can’t the West understand the East? Watching Flee provides a good tentative answer to that question.