It is argued that national borders are some sort of arbitration. Yes, there have been people fighting over them, sacrificing for them, however, who created them? Such power as the one to draw a line that decides some are inside while others aren’t is scarce and intricate, and the world has been shaped by that inclusion and exclusion in geography. A nation can turn into home, and a home can be eliminated, and audiences are led through the space between belonging and wandering via the hurting but lovely Flee.
Flee, penned and directed by filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen, is delicately animated in such a style that is visually scanty but emotionally fulfilled, with a great amount of motion and interiority. Rasmussen, a teen growing up in Copenhagen, Denmark, befriended an Afghan refugee of the same age called Amin. Amin had fled the country as the Mujahideen gained more power during the First Afghan Civil War of the 1980s and 1990s, and came to Copenhagen on his own. They became friends and kept in touch as Rasmussen pursued filmmaking while Amin studied for his doctoral degree. By the time they got back in touch for the documentary Flee, they were adults who were prepared to look back upon their past with a mix of frankness, reminiscence, resignation (from Amin) as well as curiosity and patience (from Rasmussen). The beginning of the movie’s intertitle says “This is a true story,” and along the movie, the weight of that statement is always respected with a captivating yet straightforward story – through a significant amount of human will – hopeful.
The setup of the movie is forthright, with Rasmussen guiding Amin during the conversation, however, it is never a simple approach. The two’s friendship and closeness provide such a level of intimate expression that makes the movie both specific and pleasant. Sometimes, we only have pieces of memories to keep of those we loved and lost, and Amin gathers them to indicate his deep connection with his family, his struggle to meditate his sexuality with his culture, which is conservative, and the agony of being a man with no country. There is the same start to every narration, in which an animated Amin, a man with brown complexion, his hair close-shaved, a beard, a gold chain and an anxious look, lays on a couch, staring ahead directly toward the audience. That approach where Amin looks up while we look down gives a balance and makes us feel we are actually participating, and as Amin glides into his memory and turns into his younger version, we travel along. (We have several reasons to pair Flee with Limbo, another movie focusing on refugees that is released this year, and one of the main reasons is their shared experimentation with the liminal quality of time.)
Amin’s happy childhood in Afghanistan, flying kites with a brother of his, spending time with his mother in the kitchen, is interrupted by the civil war and his father’s disappearance after the Mujahideen has taken him away. Grey collapsing buildings as well as beige running people change and fade with the appearance of the solid black resistance fighters in scratchy forms, both contrasting with Amin’s relatives who’re dressed in bright colors as well as his family home with cozy decorations. The movie then moves to Russia, where Amin spent dull and boring years as a teenager: The saturation of the color palette is volumed down, these characters’ movement shrank while their facial expressions lessened. Back to Copenhagen in the present day, where Kasper, Amin’s boyfriend, hits the walls and boundaries that Amin has built surrounding himself. And, to another version of Amin’s past that Rasmussen slowly sheds light on with his gently guiding questions. “I just need to get one thing straight,” Rasmussen says, and the pause between his statement and the following question is all kinds of composed possibilities.
The next developments of Flee unravels a number of dreary truths about the gap between the so-called “first” and “third” worlds and the desperate ways people will use in pursuit of a “better” life. Refreshingly, the movie also cares to consider the meaning of “better” and by whose standards that designation is assigned. What does living one’s truth really mean if we’re all by ourselves in the process? What susceptibility do we let ourselves have, and what elegance? A number of outstanding animated scenes bring these ideas to success: a distressed walk through a forest whose tall trees prick into the night sky; a confined, dizzy scene in a container truck, our view spinning around to examine the tight corners; a meeting between a boat of tourists and a boat of refugees that is distressing and upsetting expressed in the contrast of these people’s faces. As Flee turns from animation to live action, Rasmussen is reminding audiences of the reality of the story.
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Reality is further indicated when he includes the arguments he had with Amin about the direction of the documentary.
“We miscommunicate” is what Amin says in reference to a conversation in his adolescence with an Iranian man who spoke Farsi while he, being an Afghan, used Dari. However, it is a much greater issue than just two people and two languages. In what ways have we failed to, or worse, refused to, understand someone else?
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How have they turned into violence, into dehumanization, into disregard, and war? And what grace, what acceptance, and what love can be enjoyed when those mistakes are corrected? Flee raises those queries and listens to their answers with its ears, eyes and heart wide open.
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The documentary deserves to be ranked among this year’s best.
Flee is now available in select theaters, and planned for an expansion in January 2022.