Flee – Film Review
by David Turpin
Director – Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Writers — Amin Nawabi, Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Stars – Daniel Karimyar, Fardin Mijdzadeh, Milad Eskandari
Flee is released at the IFI from Friday, February 11th.
In Flee, Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen has created a humane, well-intentioned film following the experiences of one man, Amin Nawabi, who fled Afghanistan in childhood and eventually found asylum in Denmark, via a people-trafficking route through Russia. Now, on the verge of marrying his husband, Amin reflects upon these traumatic experiences – to which he has never previously given voice. To protect Amin and his family’s privacy, the film has been animated.
Flee is being described as an ‘animated documentary’ (although certain sources have opted for the more circumspect ‘animated docudrama’), and – in that sense – an obvious point of comparison is the riveting Waltz with Bashir (2008), which used animation to depict director Ari Folman’s experiences of the 1982 Lebanon war. Flee is both simpler and more complicated: simpler in that it never approaches, nor attempts to approach, the visual invention of Folman’s film; more complicated in that the ‘authorship’ of these memories passes not only from reality to animation but also from the subject who experienced them to a filmmaker who did not.
The visual highlights of Flee are a handful of exquisite sequences, in which terrifying, disorienting experiences are captured in haunting charcoal sketches – the jerkiness of the animation only adding to their impact. Here, Flee has visual echoes of Goya, the expressionistic quality of the filmmaking suggesting that the capture of certain experiences lies beyond the power of representation and that the role of the image is to attempt to convey the feeling more than the appearance of these events.
Elsewhere, Flee is much more conventional. Interview material with Amin is presented matter-of-fact – animated face centred in the screen and directly returning, or evading, the gaze of the viewer (who stands in for his interlocutor). Scenes of his present-day life in Denmark are touching for their depiction of the everyday intimacies of domesticity. As heteronormative culture seems to find it extremely hard to conceive of gay people’s lives as anything other than spectacles contrived for the titillation or edification of a straight audience, these seemingly banal moments might actually be one of Flee’s more emphatic political statements.
Bar a few brief inserts of news footage, the rest of the film consists of an animated recreation of the memories Amin shares (and occasionally, rather superfluous insertions of Rasmussen’s own memories of Amin). With the exception of an extraordinary extended sequence depicting Amin and his family’s flight from Russia, much of this material hews closely to well-worn images – a girl looks, startled, over her shoulder; hands almost, but don’t quite, touch; a woman freezes while washing the dishes as a revelation is dropped. Here, Rasmussen’s tendency to the banal has the opposite effect to the Danish scenes. It can surely be taken in good faith that the events depicted occurred, but whether or not they looked like this is impossible to know – and the aesthetic and cinematic choices reach for that Spielbergian ‘universality’ that might also be called the generic.
There is a real distinction to be made between rendering the experiences of the ‘othered’ visible to an uninformed audience and making these experiences palatable to that audience by flattening them to tropes. At least in visual terms, Flee crosses back and forth over that line for much of its duration, to the point that one of its most interesting subjects – and one upon which it stays completely silent – is the degree to which Rasmussen has been granted, or has granted himself, the permission to visualise somebody else’s life while still making the claim that what has been produced is somehow a ‘documentary’.
In Waltz With Bashir, Folman’s imagery was more readily acceptable on ‘documentary’ terms both because it was more stylised (and therefore less in danger of being taken as literal ‘truth’) and because it was drawn from his own memories. The film was a ‘document’ of a psychological excavation, in which the necessity of its being animated went far beyond protecting the privacy of its subjects or recreating events that took place without a camera present. The same is not true of Flee, and one wonders whether, if the subject were less emotive – or indeed, less necessary – this film might have faced more robust inquiry about how it is being defined.
For all that, this is an eminently worthwhile piece of filmmaking. Its ontological slipperiness doesn’t make it any less likely to move, inspire or educate – perhaps the opposite, in fact. Maybe it’s best to simply say that Flee is a good thing to have in the world, and – without attempting to nail down precisely what kind of a ‘thing’ it is – to leave it at that.