What does the word “home” mean to you?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s new documentary Flee—which was executive produced by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Riz Ahmed—isn’t just unique for its blending of animated storytelling and first-person narration. It’s also impressively thrilling for a doc that is this abstract and variant in its overall style. It often switches up its art direction on the fly, but even more intriguing is how the film uses its animation to keep its central figure totally anonymous.
That central figure is Amin (a pseudonym for a friend of Rasmussen), who grew up in Afghanistan during the 80s and had to flee with his family from the Mujahideen to Eastern Europe. Using a mix of animation and archival footage, Rasmussen shows us Amin lying down for most of the interview, recounting his life experiences and an assortment of memories, which often contradict themselves for reasons that become painfully clear as the film progresses. Flee isn’t just about being a refugee in the 90s, it’s also about human trafficking, personal identity, and the stories we tell ourselves (and others) in order to avoid our pursuers, as well as our own demons.
Now in his mid-30s, Amin is about to marry his longtime boyfriend Kasper, but the secrets of his past are holding him back from embracing a more hopeful, peaceful life in Copenhagen. The film doesn’t directly tie Amin’s experiences as a child and teen with his more cynical outlook on relationships as an adult, but mature viewers can piece these complicated motivations together without demanding exact explanations from the film’s subject.
One of the more inventive aspects of Flee—and what aids the film’s more gripping, exciting nature—is how it seamlessly shakes up its animation style whenever Amin’s story calls for it. A blissful prologue through the streets of Amin’s childhood home is animated to echo a-ha’s “Take on Me” music video to joyful effect, and at times, this more surrealistic art style is utilized to capture Amin’s deepest fears and confusion. Even the archival footage, which is sure to jar some viewers, comes in handy when separating the psyche of Amin from the reality he was not fully aware of, at least at the time.
However, most of the doc’s go-to animation actually reflects the mundanity of a difficult, repressed life. Most scenes are flat, hand-drawn, and contemplative in their clarity, yet they’re strangely beautiful to look at. We sit with Amin and his family as they spend entire days hiding from Moscow police who rob them blind in exchange for ignoring their expired tourist visas. A harrowing escape from Russia is depicted in slow, brooding fashion, where you can practically feel the cold sweat of everyone involved. Flee will perhaps remind many of how hand-drawn animation can be a true resource in painting the desperation and cold-blooded nature of human beings.
Yet, at its heart, Flee is about more than a single story. It’s several stories mixed into one, and it’s not always cohesive enough to sell a grander, cathartic message. This is the unfortunate reality of the situation, however, not the fault of the filmmaker and Amin himself. In the same way he apparently fought with himself over his homosexual identity—in a culture where he says there is no place for homosexuals at all, in fact—he similarly can’t find peace or satisfaction with his identity as a man of color in a white man’s country while growing up. Not much of Amin’s adult life is explored, but it’s easy to imagine his struggle to overcome his own guilt, namely in how his older brother sacrificed his own stake in normalcy as a way to secure it for his siblings.
None of the trauma depicted in Flee is easy to process and find hope in, which is why its ending feels almost insincere, or at the very least missing a puzzle piece we’ll never know (or have the right to know). But for what the film manages to get across, we should be grateful such a story found its way to a large audience, and that Rasmussen took pained effort to make it this engaging and innovative.
Flee premiered Jan. 28, 2021 at the Sundance Film Festival. For more Sundance 2021 coverage, click here.