[NOTE: Winner of Best Animated Feature 2021 by the Seattle Film Critics Society]
What is life if not lived to its truest light? Can we even call it living if all we’re doing is running, never stopping to absorb or capture the moment? To be brutally honest, no. It cannot be considered truly living until a prevalent danger no longer comes off as scary or judgmental. Such is the notable triad of a singular voice in a refugee’s peril. The voice of one, quivering, shaken, but unwilling to say no to the promise of escape, of atonement from the type of home we thought we knew. Only to find it crumble in the brink of war. And in Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, that resilience to fight, and reach that atonement without losing focus or identity. This story envelops that experience, if not also casting a wider net for similar ventures. Told as beautifully as this one is, the evidence proves it’s never just one story. Merely one piece.
Rasmussen makes his lone puzzle fragment appear grand, often intense, and deeply chilling right from the get-go. It tells the tale of a personal friend of his, renamed “Amin” for security reasons. And his accounts are given an animated clarity versus a basic live-action documentarian viewpoint. Beyond that, the subject is sharing his life through his words, and the inspiring cartoon style does the rest to invoke the strength of his plight. Amin’s appears simplistic on the surface, it took him 30 years, give or take, to recognize the meaning of home. Far from a shelter, more than a community of belonging. For Amin, perceived rather different as a kid in Kabul, jamming to new wave on a Walkman while wearing skirts, it was always where he could be himself. But until he could reach safe haven in Copenhagen, that always took a backseat.
Amin was a child of conflict, the youngest of five, unshielded from the Afghan government faltering after the Soviets backed out. Unable to sustain their home life, we see most of his flock venturing to Moscow for a short time while awaiting their next move. What awaits him is cold weather, ominous shadows, and the threat of conscription. Every threat more personal than the last as it rocks Amin to his core, fractured and persistently uncertain of a future unwelcoming. Coming to terms with the broken world, and his own flaws – being gay in Afghanistan in the late 80s was almost above and beyond criminal – took a mountain of resolve, a jagged cliff representing the rectitude of self-love.
There was never a doubt the visual style Rasmussen employs would leave an impact bordering on illuminating. Mere expressions alone say so much to foretell that energy of a troubled soul on the verge of something better. It’s all wonderfully organic, flowing freely to illustrate what’s plaguing Amin’s mind, a secret he could only struggle to keep on the down low from his fiancé. It is nowhere near a pretty picture, but a striking image gripped in a dark, eerie glow where it’s impossible not to be lured into the very scenario versus observing through an hourglass. And as the journey moves forward, what Amin is exposed to, by virtue of trauma, suppression and heartache, I felt along with. Anyone who encounters Flee as both a film and as an open window toward history is bound to encounter emotions often uneasy to pinpoint in a documentary unless working on a bedrock of agreement.
Rasmussen knows this story so well just being the subject’s best friend for so long, the eye being for overdue closure. He makes Amin comfortable enough to explain his repression, lying on the floor, looking up to the sky, speaking with the focus of a dignified scholar – he’s gunning for a postdoc tenure at Princeton. But the expressions on his face allow for little reprieve until he finishes describing those details. And it takes only moments before we’re latching on to every word. Solely because of his perspective, a psychoanalytical sort that mirrors the landscape he wanders through. Actual events don’t overwhelm the story arc; evidence is relegated only to brief clips shown on in-scene televisions. Otherwise, it’s solely Amin’s perspective, his vision, and his quickness to jump about anecdotally, aided well in hand by Editor Janus Billeskov Jansen.
Needless to say, I was suspended in total enthrallment by Rasmussen’s tonal soundness. Amin is living his best life, knowing how hard he had to work for it, and the distance required to achieve it. Picking up valuable fragments of his identity at every step, he matures into something of a folk hero, encapsulating the tragic sympathy of forced migration. Flee, as a simple word, may equate to escapism. But in Rasmussen’s hands, it also means longing, yearning for love, for acceptance, and especially for stability. If nothing else with this spectacular masterpiece that blurs the lines between animation and documentary, meeting the impetus of storytelling down a happy middle ground, let it ignite a stable heart to challenge the negativity of escapism. And perhaps turn it around, make it heroic. This story is rousing enough to hopefully achieve that. (A; 4.5/5 Horns Up!)
Flee is currently available digitally, and plays select theaters in Seattle/Tacoma (SIFF Uptown, Pacific Place, Southcenter, Grand Cinema) January 28th; rated PG-13 for strong language, disturbing images and thematic content; 90 minutes.