- Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Flee is a familiar film about refugees that excels because of its unique details. The documentary from director Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells one man’s story of his attempts to find a better life in a more hospitable country. Plenty of documentaries have tackled the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, both from a historical perspective and a modern one. But the film takes a micro approach by focusing on one specific family, and it’s all the better for it.
Rasmussen centers the film on Amin (a pseudonym), whose family fled Afghanistan once the civil war began in 1978. Since the film mostly takes place in the past, rather than relying on dramatizations with actors (those rarely work out effectively anyway), Rasmussen takes the unique approach by animating the majority of the film. The only live-action footage is from brief news clippings. Whereas the animation would feel like a gimmick in some films, here it serves a thematic purpose.
Through a series of pseudo therapy sessions, Amin recounts his family’s unexpected journey from Afghanistan to Russia after his father was taken prisoner. But life isn’t much better in Moscow, with famine and corruption to worry about, on top of living in a foreign country illegally. Whenever the story focuses on Amin’s more frightening experiences – police encounters, human traffickers, etc. – the animation takes on a more surreal quality and the film looks more hand-drawn and sketchy. The theme of hiding who we really are to others is especially prescient in Amin’s story because he realizes early in his life that he is gay. He recalls early in his life that he was never afraid of wearing his sister’s clothes, and has a different appreciation for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. He also recalls that, in Afghanistan, a word literally did not exist for homosexuality.
Eventually, Amin’s brother, who was somehow able to establish a life in Sweden, is able to scrounge together enough cash to send Amin’s sisters abroad. They’re trafficked through a shipping container for several days with countless other people – including an 8-month old – and miraculously survive, but not without an immense amount of lingering trauma.
Meanwhile in Russia, Amin passes the time with his mother and older brother by watching Mexican soap operas. This quietly understated element of experiencing other cultures through the lens of an adopted home is one of Rasmussen’s finer touches. Because their visas are expired, nobody in Amin’s family can venture outside. But, being mischievous kids, Amin and his brother go to the opening of the area’s first McDonald’s. The sequence is one of the film’s most heartbreaking and underscores Amin’s resolve to leave the country.
After 2020 produced a bevy of great documentaries, 2021 has been less prolific. Flee is one of the year’s best documentaries and, somewhat improbably, also one of the year’s best animated films. The animation style is simplistic and distinct – you won’t be wowed by it in the way you are by Pixar films, for instance – but to focus on the look of the film over its story would be missing the point.
I have no doubt that producing Flee was cathartic for Amin. Until his sessions with Rasmussen, he was legally unable to tell anyone that his family was still alive. And though he is able to live out and openly in Denmark, he still feels uncomfortable divulging certain information to his fiancé. One of the film’s present day through-lines involves the couple shopping for houses, which Amin can’t fully commit to. Rasmussen doesn’t delve terribly deeply into Amin’s headspace throughout the film; his primary objective is to tell the narrative. This may ultimately hold Flee back from greatness, but nevertheless, it remains an important, unique look into the immigrant experience.
Flee premieres in theaters on December 3.
- Like I said, the field for Documentary Features this year has been relatively weak. Flee could potentially win, especially without an entry from those pesky Obamas and their production company.
- For the last two years, the Oscars have had a duel-nominee in both the Best International Feature and Best Documentary Feature categories. That trend will likely continue again this year, though it faces stiffer competition to get to a win in International.
- Could Flee be the even-rarer film to be nominated in Documentary, International, and Animated Feature? Though Disney/Pixar essentially has a lock on the category, the Academy does tend to nominate films from independent studios. Disney/Pixar has three potential films this year, though I don’t think all three will make the cut. If that’s the case, consider this a third category for the film to break through.