This past decade has seen an increasing amount of non-fiction flicks that use animation to tell their tales. Films like 'Tower' and 'Waltz with Bashir' have shown how a drawn documentary can work, and why this approach is more than just a gimmick. Jonas Poher Rasmussen's extraordinarily touching and powerful 'Flee' is the latest to push the boundaries of the form.
'Flee' follows the story of refugee Amin (a pseudonym) and his family, through their trials and tribulations after they escape Afghanistan in the early 1990s, wind up in the only slightly less-menacing Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then try to sneak into Scandinavia via traffickers. The tale is told in the present day, with the now 36-year-old Amin being interviewed by Rasmussen (a friend of his since they were teenagers together in Denmark) acting almost like a therapist, cajoling his patient to unburden themselves of buried trauma. Rasmussen combines Amin's voice (and his own) with animated imagery to create a testament, not only to this one refugee, but to all victims of the global humanitarian crisis.
Complicating Amin's story is the fact that he's homosexual. "I was in love with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Seriously! I had fantasies about him," he laughs to Rasmussen about his gay awakening to the Muscles from Brussels (who seems to wink at him from the poster of 'Bloodsport' adorning his wall as a boy). His friend agrees, "I liked Jean-Claude Van Damme also, but for different reasons."
Amin had to hide his sexuality, not just from government authorities, but for fear of creating turmoil in his already precarious family unit, "the only point of reference in our crazy fucking lives" after his father was imprisoned in 1980s Kabul (being taken away after the retreat of the Soviets and the civil wars that followed). Combined with his refugee status, it's something that impacts him to this day, even as he prepares to marry his long-time partner, Kasper. "Most people can't imagine how running like this affects you," he states.
Rasmussen brings Amin's story to life with bright animation that drops flat planes on top of each other to produce startling depth in some scenes, while evoking the two-dimensional appearance of a comic strip in others. Memory scenes are rendered in a sketchy style. "Who do I save first if the boat sinks?" Amin ponders during an anxious ride in a flooded ship's cargo hold. The accompanying animated sequence is a shadowy view from the bottom of the ocean, looking up at a mass of floating bodies.
Rasmussen brings Amin's story to life with bright animation that drops flat planes on top of each other to produce startling depth in some scenes, while evoking the two-dimensional appearance of a comic strip in others.
To an Australian, 'Flee' hits a little differently. Australia's system of offshore detention enjoys bipartisan support in our country's federal parliament, despite growing international censure. Aussies are divided on the issue. An opinion poll conducted in 2017 by the Lowy Institute think-tank found 48 per cent of Australians supported an immigration policy that refused any asylum seeker arriving by boat. Public opinion towards asylum seekers needs to change. Our government has previously been able to tap into an idea of Australia as an island under siege, but films like 'Flee' ask us to consider a narrative of compassionate values.
Rasmussen expertly weaves the episodic structure of 'Flee' together, handling its main character with care but also curiosity, slowly peeling back the layers behind his narration. We get to know Amin and, despite the heartbreaking details of his life, his confessional is ultimately as uplifting as it is impossible to turn away from.