No matter what kind of entertainment an artist pursues, they are always in search of a story and the best way to tell it. In the triumphant new documentary Flee, world premiering at Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Jonas Poher Rasmussen uses animation and archival footage to transport the audience back to Afghanistan in 1984, where we meet Amin, whose journey from that moment becomes the story, a refugee tale unlike any you have ever seen before.
Rasmussen felt compelled to tell his friend’s story as soon as he heard it. A refugee who had been forced to escape his home with his family when he was a child, Amin’s journey to Denmark, where he met Rasmussen and has lived since the ‘90s, is beyond harrowing, filled with tragedy, fear, helplessness and inhumanity. Instead of asking Amin to sit in front of a camera and recount his experiences, Rasmussen employs various styles of animation as a visual accompaniment to Amin’s narration. From Afghanistan to Russia to Denmark, Amin’s travels are filled with moments of panic, violence and fear, the details of which are simultaneously easier to watch and more nightmarish in animated form, as the style of drawing becomes more and more simplistic, dark and colorless during the most frightening moments.
Archival footage is sprinkled throughout to provide historical touchpoints for the audience, and are extremely effective in giving a sense of place and time for the story. But it is Amin’s voiceover narration, his vulnerable honesty and obvious emotion as he recounts his memories that prove to be the most gut-wrenching and effective element of Flee. Because Rasmussen is a friend, Amin obviously feels more comfortable opening up, and the conversations between the two feel genuine as Amin lets his walls down, even telling Rasmussen (and us) things he’s never told any other living soul. Amin becomes our friend instantly, one we want to learn about, and instantly care about.
The horrors of a refugee’s story vary by individual, but horrors they all are. Amin’s story is one that is hard to experience, and don’t think the animation sanitizes the terror or the cruelty of his tale, but there is a fundamental distance the animation allows us that does make it a little easier.
Even with the nightmare tale Amin tells, Rasmussen finds a way to keep Amin, the person, at the center of it. His terrible story does not become him. Throughout the entire journey, we know Amin as a child, a teenager, and a man. We know his passions, his joys and his loves, as well as his fears. He is never reduced to being a refugee, he is a fully-formed person, and that is never lost. Especially effective is Amin’s relating of being gay, an emotional thread that the story keeps coming back to. The fact that Amin struggles with being gay almost as much as he does with being a refugee is both a gut punch and a reality check, but effective in constructing Amin’s world far beyond the single dimension of child escapee.
Rasmussen tells an individual story against a global backdrop, personalizing a crisis that is far too common in today’s politically ravaged world, letting one man’s story be told with delicacy, compassion and humanity, a visual feast and a moving narrative that won’t be easy to forget.
Originally published on AwardsWatch.com.