“An ambitious and empathetic look at a refugee’s experience that refuses to distance itself, or the viewer, from what’s said.”
by Ken Bakely
A question that will likely come up quite often about Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee – the latest entry on the very short list of feature-length, animated documentaries – is what the film’s visual approach adds to this story, particularly considering that it’s about one person’s life experiences, where intimacy and connection are prerequisites, and using animation could be distancing. But this is the wrong way to think about it. In fact, it becomes clear over the course of the film that this might be one of the only ways this story could be told with this level of detail and self-interrogation. Rasmussen, a Danish filmmaker, interviews a longtime friend of his who he has known since adolescence; for privacy reasons, he is identified only by a pseudonym, “Amin.” A native of Kabul, Amin’s family was thrown into chaos when his father disappeared under the orders of the Soviet-backed government in the 1980s, leading him, his mother, and his siblings to flee Afghanistan. Hoping to eventually reunite with another relative in Sweden (via Russia), the family has to navigate a cruel and labyrinthian life as refugees, cursed with alternating spells of tedium and danger, as they live in hiding with the ever-looming threat of being caught, and even if they’re not, if they’ll ever make it to where they want to go.
It’s the journey of piecing this together – as Amin tells the details of his journey, in full, for the first time in a public setting – that demonstrates why the concept of animation works here. Not only does it allow Rasmussen to smoothly visualize the events Amin describes in the past tense, but it underlines something critical that becomes apparent as the film goes on. He is telling a story where, among many other things, permanence – any sense of true, palpable belonging – is thwarted at every step. At its best, the animation creates a powerful sense trying to visualize that which can’t be seen in reality and sometimes seems to barely exist at all in the physical world. Consider the details here. Understand that Amin eventually got to Denmark alone, by the skin of his teeth, after struggling with his family in the tattered cityscape of Moscow immediately after the Soviet collapse, where false starts run aplenty and close calls with deportation back to Afghanistan are only avoided because the officials are so easy to bribe. It required luck and wit – the ability to quickly tell the lies that people want to hear so they’ll help him out instead of turning against him. Memories of the past became clouded and compressed, blurred together by the crushing waves of setback and hardship and obscured by the new identity he had to assume. This is the story that Flee tells, and what it takes great care to emphasize: Rasmussen creates a powerful sense of the approximation of memory, plunging the viewer into a world where everything seems to just slip by, and where we don’t have the distance of simply watching someone describe it all.
This is a crushing story all its own – the mere nature of it, even before the details. It’s certainly not necessary to force his journey into a contrived, conventional narrative shape for it to be a compelling tale. We know that Amin will eventually build a life that he can truly call his own – early on, we learn he is a successful academic, and that he and his fiancé, Kasper, are about to buy a house together – and yet, the film doesn’t shy away from the ongoing struggles that Amin carries with him; his continued difficulties in what to reveal and what to hide from others, which sometimes appears in the interactions between him and Kasper that we’re allowed into, and is thus a further subtext to the very nature of what he discusses with us as viewers. It’s an unafraid realism, that visualization of a real person’s real life in progress, that makes Flee so strong; when there is a problem with the film, it’s Rasmussen’s occasional flights of abstraction that might pull us away from the core of this story – and with one as sensitive and detailed as this, sometimes it can be as simple as filling out the film’s simple animation style with prolonged, inexplicable bursts of live-action, archival footage. Anything that pushes us away from the marriage of remembrance through narration and conceptualization through animation – and the specific interplay between the two – is detrimental to Rasmussen’s own style. But these moments are rare. In total, Flee’s achievements are enveloping and soaring, providing an ambitious and empathetic look at a refugee’s experience that refuses to distance itself, or the viewer, from what’s said.