Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen; Written by Jonas Poher Rasmussen and Amin Nawabi
I don’t subscribe to the idea of “important” movies or timeliness in filmmaking. The former I believe is a defense mechanism by the self-ordained, holding aloft the notion that their film’s cinematic qualities (or lack thereof) should be ignored because of the importance of its message. Timeliness, similarly misunderstands how good storytelling is timeless, and no movie that’s only good for the moment was ever good in the first place.
Flee, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary about the story of Amin, an Afghani refugee whose family is splintered in the wake of the Mujahideen’s rise to power, is timeless, yet long overdue. We watch his family get torn apart: his father “disappears” in the hands of the new regime, an older brother makes it to Sweden, scraping together every cent he can to pay human traffickers to get his remaining family members out of Russia where they now live as illegals and in constant fear of abuse from the local police.
Languishing in despair, fear for the life of his family, and numbing terror at the prospect of life passing him by in this holding pattern makes for a grueling coming-of-age story. If that wasn’t enough, there’s a tender anguish within this geopolitical misery too, as Amin’s feelings for men puts him in double-jeopardy growing up in an Afghani culture where there isn’t even a term for homosexuality.
The physical threat is the immediate fear in Flee but a different kind of death anchors it. Because what happens when you don’t see your family for years on end, or never see them again because you had to declare them dead in order to claim asylum? What happens to your sense of self when you can’t be honest about who you are and must deny yourself again and again and again? You die in a different way and what life can come from that?
Flee is surprisingly gentle in a way that belies its devastating subject matter where people face erasure in ways metaphorical and literal, and much of that is down to Jess Nichols’ art direction. When Flee is at its lowest, depicting scenes of abject terror and complete subjugation, the film goes grayscale and people become trembling, hurried shapes where distinguishing features are whisked away to leave them ghosts, their faces wiped clean of everything but a single worried browline coiling in fear.
Outside of these moments, Rasmussen’s direction never loses sight of what’s at stake: people. He frames them in the middle, never further away than a medium close-up. Getting up close to catch the fear, sadness, hopelessness, and wonder when those rare happy moments occur, he never strays too far in order to catch the small acts, both tender and vile, that define humanity’s best and worst in the world of Flee.
It makes the documentary a piece of humanitarian filmmaking that resonates, because even if (thankfully) the vast majority of people cannot empathize with losing everything, everyone can sense the primal fear of losing your family to the unknown and the pernicious fear of never truly finding yourself and making yourself known to the world.
Monumental in how it makes lucid the power of the small victories in life, Flee makes you want to wrap your arms Amin, his family, the entire world, because while it’s a unique film, Flee’s about a life that’s unfortunately far too common, whether the western world knows it or not. For every person who watches it, at least there’s one person more that does.