Flee stirringly combines documentary and animated narrative to tell an incredibly compelling, human, and touching immigrant story.
In recent years, filmmakers have increasingly blurred the lines between classic documentary and narrative fiction. Movies such as I Carry You With Me have hybridized the two, effectively combining a narrative story told with actors and a real life glimpse into the current day of the people who served as the basis for the story. Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story utilized the reality of old concert footage and the unreality of various talking heads simply making things up to help investigate and deepen much of the mythology surrounding Bob Dylan’s career. And so enters Flee, which combines a classic talking head narrative documentary with an animated film.
Flee tells the story of an immigrant from Afghanistan who has made it to Sweden and has made a life for himself. The film opens in the classic documentary talking head mode, but in lovely rotoscoped animation. Soon, we have flashed back to the childhood of our protagonist, Amin, to a reasonably happy family life in Kabul before the revolution. As the film weaves through his immigrant story, it often breaks form to capture the “out of form” conversation between Amin and his interviewer Rasmussen (the director of the film).
In this, the English language version of the film, Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal) and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) voice the two leads. They both bring texture to their performances and, frankly, the use of trained actors makes the story telling crisp and vibrant in a way retrospective documentaries can frequently struggle to achieve. I’ll out my ignorance here – this is not the sort of refugee story with which I’m most familiar. Amin escapes from Afghanistan to Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union. He is forced to survive off the grid as an illegal immigrant to the fallen Communist state until eventually making his way to Scandinavia through astounding hardship. It’s a fascinating slice of life that I simply have not experienced before.
Animation lends itself to a sort of universality of experience. The ability to play with color, texture, and even style of art allows director Jonas Poher Rasmussen to heighten the emotional effect of the story in a stark, memorable way. The memory of an adventure through the streets of Kabul takes on a dreamlike quality, while the threat of Russian police become a larger than life threat. The inside of a boat packed with immigrants evolves into a horror scape evoked by color and shape rather than precise imagery. It makes for an incredibly effective exercise in tone.
One of the greatest things about this film is its sense of humor. As our protagonist finds his sexual awakening, a realization that he’s gay, the film playfully brings to life the men who first trigger a yearning in him. A playing card of Anil Kapoor winks at him and his poster of Jean Claude Van Damme briefly comes to life and, in one of the film’s best callback jokes, later reappears in Bloodsport on Russian television. It’s a spirited way to depict a sexual coming of age and particularly resonant for someone coming to grips with his sexuality in a country where homosexuality is forbidden.
The descriptions used by Amin, here, are truly lovely. He describes one friend who accompanied him through a stretch of his escape from Russia. When the two part, Amin acknowledges what we had already expected: that the two didn’t see one another again. As they walk their separate ways in an airport, Amin explains “it’s weird that I can’t remember his name, though he means so much to me.” It’s a lovely sentiment that perfectly captures the fleeting essence of memory. Names were not important in that moment, little notes of human interaction are what has remained.
I hope that next awards season we will be discussing Flee as a contender both for best animated film and for best documentary. The film’s space in mind has only grown in the days since I saw it. One of the highlights of Sundance 2021, Flee is a moving, universal survivor story and certain to be considered one of the best films of the year.