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With films 'Flee' and 'Encounter,' Riz Ahmed helps tell the stories of men on the run


Riz Ahmed has had a big year. He was nominated for best actor Oscar for playing a drummer losing his hearing in the "Sound Of Metal." And this weekend, he adds two more films to his resume. He is the executive producer for an unusual refugee documentary called "Flee." And he's the star of a sci-fi thriller called "Encounter." Critic Bob Mondello says both films bring urgency to stories of men on the run.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The documentary "Flee" charts an Afghan refugee's two-decade journey not just from childhood in war-torn Kabul to political asylum in Denmark but also to a post-grad degree at Princeton and marriage to his Danish partner Kasper. It's drawn from many hours of interviews, and I mean that verb drawn literally.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: To protect his subject's identity, the filmmaker uses moody animation - charcoal and pen and ink - to illustrate his story. This has advantages, not least that he can show anecdotes that a more conventional documentary would have struggled to find images for, say, the time when Amin, which is not his subject's real name, was dancing in the streets of Kabul at the age of 4 wearing an older sister's nightgown.


MONDELLO: Amin notes that even as a child, he was seen as different and remembers a crush he had back then on a movie star.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Amin Nawabi) Jean-Claude Van Damme.

MONDELLO: Coaxed by the director, he also remembers the first Taliban takeover and his gray-haired mother spiriting his older brother out of Afghanistan as he was about to be drafted. She then took young Amin and his other siblings to Moscow on a harrowing last flight out, for which we now have a more recent reference point. Terrifying treks at the hands of human traffickers, at one point in a sealed shipping container on the high seas...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, shouting in non-English language).

MONDELLO: ...Fill much of the movie and give it a furious narrative drive, always tempered by animation that's ravishing but also simple and wistful and that makes the fleeing in "Flee" as riveting as it is genre expanding. Suppose, though, that what you're fleeing is everywhere.


MONDELLO: A meteor streaks across the sky at the outset of "Encounter," blazing briefly and sending particles of dust streaming down into forests, where they're ingested by insects. But they're not dust. They're microbes, parasites that rob their hosts of free will. And when a mosquito ingests one, they start to move up the food chain. Malik, played by Riz Ahmed, is a decorated Marine trained to assess and minimize risk. But he can't get officialdom to acknowledge the danger. So he's raced in the middle of the night to spirit his young sons, who are living with his estranged wife, away to a place where he can protect them.


RIZ AHMED: (As Malik Khan) I'm taking you on a road trip out of town.

LUCIAN-RIVER CHAUHAN: (As Jay Khan) Now? Let's do it.

AHMED: (As Malik Khan) You good to go.

LUCIAN-RIVER: (As Jay Khan) Yeah.

AHMED: (As Malik Khan) Ready for action?

MONDELLO: As he and the boys trek into a desolate American wasteland, armed mostly with bug spray, there are threats of a more down-to-earth sort - police, right-wing militiamen. And finally, he's forced to admit that...


AHMED: (As Malik Khan) This ain't a road trip. This is a rescue mission. Take my hand. Y'all ever heard of the Three Musketeers?

ADITYA GEDDADA: (As Bobby Khan) No, never.

AHMED: (As Malik Khan) They were the three toughest soldiers there ever was. They could survive anything because they stuck together. Now you telling me if we don't stand by each other, we can't get through anything? I know we can.

MONDELLO: Sticking together isn't always easy. Six-year-old Bobby tends to wander off and his brother, Jay, though he may be the most responsible 10-year-old on the planet, is still just 10.


AHMED: (As Malik Khan) OK, this happens again, we've got a problem. I mean it.

LUCIAN-RIVER: (As Jay Khan) Why are you angry at me when he ran off?

AHMED: (As Malik Khan) He is a kid.

LUCIAN-RIVER: (As Jay Khan) I'm a kid, too.

AHMED: (As Malik Khan) You're not a kid anymore. You can't be. I'm sorry. I need you. Hey, look at me. Look at me. Families take care of each other. Is that clear?

LUCIAN-RIVER: (As Jay Khan) Yes.

MONDELLO: Filmmaker Michael Pearce keeps the action propulsive as the film shifts gears and jumps genres, heading towards a climax that he executes with Spielbergian (ph) visual flair. "Encounter's" plot isn't always as persuasive as its characters. But as a father driven by desperation, Riz Ahmed is heroic and heartbreaking, as he no doubt will be again when "Flee" is released in English. He's slated to dub the voice of Amin, once more ever on the run, all barely 12 months after receiving what we'll likely be saying in a few years was his first Oscar nomination. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.