Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
While not quite revolutionary in it’s amalgamation of animation and documentary (we live in a world in which 2008’s Waltz with Bashir – among others – exist), nevertheless, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s empathetic shout from the fringes rings as a necessary and beautifully crafted experiment with the possibilities of the form. The choice of medium also proves advantageous to the story being proffered, allowing Rasmussen to preserve the anonymity of his subject; an Afghan refugee whose protracted story of flight and personal discovery provides the remarkable narrative for this film.
Opening with stark, expressionistic brushstrokes, Rasmussen and his collaborators (animators and art directors Guillaume Dousse, Jess Nicholls and Kenneth Ladekjær), fashion a smudged interpretation of Afghanistan in the late ’80s, typified by gloom, oppression and the increasing threat of civil war and foreign occupancy. Exile is the only resort.
Rasmussen is revealed to be interviewing a former schoolmate, credited and referred to throughout as Amin (an alias, one assumes). Through Amin’s insights he is able to conjure a profoundly humane and detailed account of the realities of illegal immigration across the Middle East and Russia; a paranoiac hell of corrupt officials, reckless traffickers and the casual abuse of power. Amin’s family is torn apart as the cost of their flight means they must leave piecemeal, never knowing if they will find rest in the same country as one another, let alone whether they will see each other again. Flee candidly presents the wider ramifications of such dramatic relocation in a light many won’t have seriously stopped to consider.
In a manner as candid as his hellish recollections of abortive border crossings, Amin also talks through his experiences as a young gay man living (by fear or circumstance) in countries wholly refusing of non-hetero sexual orientation. Of how, through this conditioning, he believed his long-held attraction to men was somehow ‘curable’. Contrasted with present-day scenes which document the domestic trivialities of settling down with his long-term boyfriend, Flee represents another kind of inspirational journey altogether; of an individual coming to know, love and accept himself. Scored to the euphoric chirrup of Daft Punk’s “Veridis Quo”, Amin’s first experience of a gay club is revelatory, and provides the exuberant counterpoint to the film’s grim tales of tribulation.
Several aspects and details of Amin’s tales linger long in the mind. His sisters’ harrowing sea crossing in a cramped shipping container recalls the horror story at the centre of the second season of The Wire, but there’s no comfort in fiction this time. This is a true accounting – as much as Amin can confirm it to be true – and its but one example of a method of trafficking that’s still happening somewhere everyday. The desperation entailed in embarking on such a venture is palpably conveyed.
Elsewhere, Amin ruminates on a scarring encounter at the opening of Russia’s first McDonald’s restaurant, where a deeply understandable act of cowardice has left him haunted to this day. The positioning of the American fast-food chain in such close approximation to an unspeakable crime indicts the West as a co-conspirator in cruelties across the globe. The blind eye of corporate culture.
Flee is an edifying, deft and intelligently rendered piece of anecdotal biography. Exec produced by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, it arrives on the wave of a year’s acclaim on the festival circuit and now with a clutch of promising Oscar nominations. Indeed, it is the first picture to achieve recognition for International, Animated and Documentary Feature in the same list. Of course, Oscar only matters as much as you let it, but this is an occasion where the celebration is comfortably justified.
Missives this revealing from the perspectives of refugees aren’t commonly presented with such a platform, and Flee is especially precious for allowing a gay voice to rise out of a widely suppressed community. Interspersed with fractal images from the real world – archival news footage and leaked videotape – Flee is an empathic and beautifully animated piece of filmmaking. It’s narrative footprint crosses continents. Perhaps it’s telling can bring us all closer together, if that’s not too glib a note to end on.