Safe Haven in Animation – Flee

Denmark is the defending champion when it comes to the Oscar for International Feature, and their follow-up entry may pull off a bit of Academy history once the nominations come out. The unique and captivating Flee is not only submitted as a foreign film, but it is also up for Documentary Feature AND Animated Feature, and could very easily be nominated in all three categories, making it the first film to accomplish such a feat. It’s already racked up a ton of hardware, including the World Cinema Documentary prize at Sundance and Best Feature at the Annecy Film Festival (the most prestigious for animation), giving it enough heft to truly make some waves.

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen (with Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau serving as Executive Producers), this is one of the most fascinating, heartbreaking, and inspirational films you’re likely to see this year. And it’s all done through basic interview storytelling and simple two-dimensional animation. Like Waltz With Bashir and Last Day of Freedom before it, the use of the art style is not what makes the film novel, but how it enhances the story and draws us in to the plight of our subject. Those other works are great in their own right, but Flee may end up surpassing them both.

Rasmussen focuses the film on Amin, a friend of his from high school who he knew came to Denmark as a refugee from Afghanistan, escaping after the Mujahedeen drove the Russians out in the 1980s. Amin now lives with his longtime boyfriend, Kasper, and the two are house hunting before they get married. As such, Rasmussen uses this huge milestone of Amin’s life to get his friend to open up and share the story of his odyssey to Europe for the first time, including correcting the record on areas where he had to lie in order to safely enter the country.

The interviews are framed as a therapy session, with Rasmussen sitting in a chair asking questions while Amin lies down on a flat surface, the camera filming him from above with his head resting against a pillow and tapestry. The point is to make Amin feel as comfortable as possible in discussing his own trauma, but there’s only so far he can go at any given moment. In an early scene where he begins to discuss his father, Amin suddenly cuts off the story, noting that he’s not yet ready to talk about it, and the friends reschedule for months down the line (Amin studies and lectures at Princeton in addition to his normal work in Copenhagen). It lets us know that we’re going to be delving into some pretty heavy shit. It’s not that smuggling oneself out of a war zone isn’t hardcore in and of itself, but the fact that some 35 years later – when basic details like his father being arrested are just too painful to recall – you can feel Amin’s active resistance to acknowledging his past even through a cell-shaded lens. The sheer emotional weight of what he’s giving us is palpable.

Framing all of this against the backdrop of Amin’s impending nuptials is a wonderfully layered approach. Not only is this a major moment in Amin’s life, as it would be for anyone, but it represents a necessary reckoning of all his experiences to this point. He’s about to commit himself to someone presumably for the rest of his days. He’s about to make a major investment in real estate, hoping for a long elusive peace in his existence. And all of that simply can’t go forward if he can’t come to terms with what’s happened to him. He needs to know that he can be honest and share every part of himself with Kasper, never shutting him out, and never keeping secrets. He needs to cope with all the stigmas he’s dealt with in his life, as a refugee, as an ethnic minority, and as a gay man. Marrying Kasper means possibly starting a family with him, and that must include the rest of his surviving relatives to make it fully complete.

As such, the interviews with Rasmussen are a sort of test run. Can he shed his insecurities at least enough to admit his tribulations? Can he let down his guard enough to finally trust the people who have his best interests in mind? Will he forever be a captive to his past no matter how far he gets away from the pain he once knew? The lengthy process of recording these interviews and compiling this story is testament to how difficult all of this must be, but also how essential it is to deal with it before he can move forward with the next phase of his life.

Amin’s journey is beautifully rendered, from his father’s loss, to shielding his older brother from military conscription, to understanding his budding sexuality (a lovely running joke about a crush on Jean-Claude Van Damme), to the actual escape from Afghanistan and life in legal limbo. Every character, regardless of their level of importance, is drawn with such careful detail that they could warrant a story all on their own (and seeing them all on the film’s poster makes it almost look like a Wes Anderson ensemble). Each section of the story is filled with striking imagery. A look at an old journal is a heart-wrenching moment because it’s written by Amin in a language he can barely recognize now, a side effect of his assimilation at such a young age. A cruise ship passing by after a night of baling out water as he’s being smuggled to Sweden offers momentary hope of salvation only to immediately dash it as the more privileged look on and take pictures, providing no aid. Lights in the heels of a small child’s shoes threaten to give away their position in the dead of night, with human traffickers threatening to kill the kid if they can’t stop them lighting up. These scenes stick with you, etching themselves into your very soul and shaking it to its core. It’s at once impossible to imagine and awe inspiring when you see it on the screen.

Amidst all the tragedy, there are still moments of pure joy throughout, be it a present-day aside where Amin and Kasper flirt argue about breakfast, reminiscing about watching Mexican telenovelas in Russia, or Amin and his brother seeing a McDonald’s for the first time. There’s one particular moment I won’t spoil, but it’s so gorgeous artistically and thematically that when a rather significant player caps it by saying, “We always knew,” I might have momentarily sobbed.

This is, I think, one of the most important films of the year. It’s vivid, it’s visceral, it’s vivacious, and it’s vital to our collective discourse, especially now that we in the U.S. have just ended our own longstanding occupation of Afghanistan, and stories much like this one are bound to happen once again in the wake of that. This is a tale that’s all too common in the world today, regardless of the setting, but it’s the way it’s told, the way it’s shown, that makes it so special. Showing it to us through animation gives it an almost fantastical feel, which ironically in turn makes it all the more real.

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you know someone who experienced hardship as an immigrant? Could you relate your worst trauma to the rest of the world? Let me know!

11 thoughts on “Safe Haven in Animation – Flee

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