Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is the official submission from Denmark to the 94th Academy Awards for Best International Feature. On February 8, it got the nomination. That same day, it was also nominated for Best Documentary Feature and Best Animated Feature. This is historical, as this film becomes the first film to be nominated in all three of those categories. At the 92nd Academy Awards, Honeyland became the first film to be nominated in both Best International Feature and Best Documentary Feature. There aren’t that many films that has the potential to be nominated in all three of those categories. A previous example was The Missing Picture (2014), which was the film from Cambodia, nominated for Best International Feature née Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards. Another example was Waltz with Bashir (2008), which was the film from Israel, nominated for Best International Feature at the 81st Academy Awards. Like with all of those previous films, this one tells an incredible story and like Honeyland, it’s a film that deserved to be nominated in the main category of Best Picture.
Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the Danish filmmaker tells the story of his friend, Amin Nawabi, an Afghan refugee who left his home country with his family during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980’s. Rasmussen basically interviews Nawabi who tells the story of his childhood and what he experienced while being a refugee, but who is now in his 40’s. It’s not clear if Amin Nawabi is the real name of the man in question, and, reportedly, the reason that animation is used in this film is to protect the identity of Nawabi’s real existence. In such, this film reminded of David France’s Welcome to Chechnya (2020), which was also a documentary about refugees escaping Russia and David France using technology to obscure their identities.
What further connects Rasmussen’s film to France’s is the fact that the subjects in both films are gay men. The distinction is that Nawabi escapes his home country, not by choice, but because he’s a child being taken by his family. The subject in France’s film is escaping of his own accord because of persecution, due to the fact that he’s gay. Being gay and the horror he experienced due to the homophobia in Russia is what motivated him to leave. Nawabi was aware of the homophobia around him, but that wasn’t the specific cause of his family’s flight from Afghanistan and then later Russia.
The specific cause was the Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted through the 80’s. Nawabi’s observations as a child of this conflict and his family’s attempt to escape reminded me of Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father (2017), which was Cambodia’s official submission to the 90th Academy Awards for Best International Feature. It didn’t get nominated, but, it did become one of my favorite films of that year because of its emotional impact. Some might call it manipulative because it’s depicting the horrors of war through the eyes of a child, but this film is framed from Nawabi as an adult looking back on these childhood occurrences.
At one point, Nawabi and his family had to go into hiding, avoiding authorities in both Afghanistan and Russia. The way they did so at times invoked ideas or images from something like The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). The desperation of Nawabi and his family to escape and get away from their war-torn country and the later xenophobia they faced felt akin to what I saw in Quo Vadis, Aida? (2021), another film nominated for Best International Feature. The discrimination may not have risen to the level of the genocide of the Holocaust or even the genocide of the Bosnian War, as depicted in Quo Vadis, Aida?. Yet, the filmmaking here invokes that same kind of fear and terror that people suffered.
However, this film is not all doom and gloom. What Rasmussen and Nawabi do is they also capture the excitement and thrill of a young man discovering his sexuality and finding ways to express it and at times bask in it. From the opening, which provides a burst of gender nonconforming joy to the penultimate scene of leaning into full-on same-sex attraction, this film doesn’t lose sight of gay culture and the beauty and warmth of it. The ending is one that also reminded me of international queer love stories, underlining the difficulty of immigrant experiences, such as Malachi Leopold’s Alex & Ali (2015) and Logo’s Out of Iraq: A Love Story (2016).
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, disturbing images and strong language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 29 mins.
Available on Hulu.