Film of the Week: Flee
A few days ago, on Oscar nomination morning, a surprising new record was set with a trio of unlikely nominations for a single film. Best foreign language film, best documentary, best animation. Each the preferred space of international art-house, topical heavy hitters and family friendly fare respectively. Being viable for two of those categories is rare, let alone to be a front runner in all three among the industry voters. That didn’t matter to Jonas Poher Rasmussen—not that awards seemed to be what he was aiming for. Without pretence, and by telling the smallest, most personal true story using his native tongue and an animation studio, Rasmussen has caught the attention of industry and audience alike. And for a very good reason.
Flee recounts the story of the anonymous “Amin”, an Afghan refugee who arrived alone in Denmark as a fifteen year old, his family having all perished during their escape from the worsening conflict between the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Afghan Civil War. Two decades later, he’s in a domestic crisis with his long term partner; torn between settling down and buying a home and accepting work overseas that will separate them. During this time, he agrees to speak with Rasmussen—an old friend from high school looking for a documentary subject—and unburdens the truth of his journey to another for the first time.
Novelly told through animation (with the exception of intermittent archival footage), Flee provides Amin with the anonymity and amnesty to reconstruct his memories, turning documentary filmmaking on its head with a uniquely individual story. The questions of ethics, veracity and objectivity hang like a cloud over every documentary purporting to tell its audience a truth. We are asked to trust Amin’s words alone, as his truth. And with the barrier of animation protecting him, there’s no reason not to. As he speaks, he details the oppression faced at every corner of his journey, from corrupt Soviet law enforcement to increasingly desperate dealings with human traffickers, and the repression required to cope with the trauma of his experiences. That repression: present even now in his life with his partner, who he has never fully opened up to on the details of his escape.
The animation too allows Amin’s memories to be presented vividly. We are allowed to see detailed recreations of his home, the places he’s been; all through Amin’s recollection and an animators hand. Solid drawings devolve into charcoal scratches on sugar paper when a memory is too traumatic, too elusive, or when drifting into third person storytelling. It’s curious, to consider how this predominantly subjective method of expressing a story increases both the impact and ethics of a documentary. Even more curious, is that this stands as the third feature—with LGBTQ+ subjects and a story of escaping persecution—in under two years to do something similar. Playing with documentarian form in order to ensure greater protection for its subjects, as with the use of Deepfake VFX in David France’s Welcome to Chechnya. And in reconstructing reality in a surprising manner, as with Heidi Ewing’s (one half of the team behind Jesus Camp) narrative feature debut, I Carry You With Me.
That last film mentioned features a twist so thoroughly unexpected that I have sworn never to reveal it. And, as odd as it seems, another stealthy sting awaits in the tail of Flee. What Amin reveals to Rasmussen is parsed out at his own pace. And his story—and our world—is reframed with a handful of words late in the film into something heart wrenching. The sort of gutting revelation that both breaks and repairs, leaves us thinking different from what we’d expected. That’s the key to a great documentary. To a great film. To a great story. Devastating, haunting and yet completely moving, Flee is a beautiful triumph.