A beautiful, yet harrowing docudrama that deftly uses its medium and genre to dive into the complex history of a man forced to flee from home.
Flee is a singular kind of documentary. While it’s not the first, nor even the first of few animated documentaries, an unconventional blend of medium and genre that is sparse but has been around for a very long time, the film’s usage of that medium and genre is incredible and inspired, Rasmussen equipping the film with thematic purpose behind every decision, whether it is the animation styles used and the way he delicately structures the film to tell Amin’s stories of hardship. It results in a film that is as beautiful as it is harrowing, a complex, intertwined narrative of a young boy and his family fleeing from Kabul during the Afghan Civil War and their plight to find a safe home, along with discussions of his sexual identity and his life with his partner, and the complexity of holding these secrets in as he tries to find a life full of love.
The animation was designed to protect Amin (not his real name), a façade that Rasmussen can put up to hide his friend away from the spotlight at Amin’s request. That being said, the film takes this as an opportunity to use the medium in clever ways. The film is still very much structured as a documentary as you’d expect it, featuring Amin in talking heads as he recounts his life, overlayed with animated dramatisations of these events. The audio is the real audio of the interviews and conversations between Rasmussen and Amin, the animation is drawn to somewhat replicate Rasmussen’s footage, and it feels like this, from b-roll of Amin and his partner in the car, or Amin at his computer, to the talking head, which is reportedly exactly how Rasmussen filmed it, to the over the shoulder conversations between Rasmussen and Amin. In the audio, there’s background noise and moments where Amin clearly turns away from the microphone, all lending itself to more authenticity to the film, let alone how Amin tells his story, which feels really tough and complex for him to relive.
Early in the film, after the first instance of Amin talking about his childhood in Kabul, Rasmussen asks Amin about his father. Amin sits up, and the pain in his voice as he explains to his friend how he isn’t ready to tell that story yet is palpable. It feels so intensely important for Rasmussen to let Amin himself tell his story, not a voice actor retelling them, and it is all the more powerful for it. This provides the documentary with the authenticity it could have lost in its translation to animation. The emotion that we hear from Amin as he talks is what gives the film such an emotional charge, the shot framing in the present-day sections feels like documentary footage, the level of work to replicate the actual interview footage Rasmussen shot and to try and be as close to the truth as possible while respecting the privacy of Amin, is so evident. It brings so much to the truthfulness of the film.
These present-day segments are full of moments like this, where Amin speaks to Rasmussen openly about his feelings and presents his struggles with personal attachment. In a way different from the retellings, these moments feel raw and honest, full of Amin’s anxieties, playing out in real-time. Rasmussen’s interviewing style lends a lot to empathy, even in how he conducts the interview with Amin laid down as he talks in an almost therapy looking set-up. It seems to work much like that, and in response, Amin is very open and honest, even at the most challenging moments. To complement a lot of this, Rasmussen shows Amin and his partner together in small moments, it displays a different side of him, it all helps to paint a bigger picture of the man at the centre of the story, to help explore who he is, how his world has been influenced by his past and his experiences as a boy fleeing his country and separated from his family.
All of this is animated, and while it is primarily a way of protecting the man at the centre of it, it also gives the filmmakers a way to visually interpret Amin’s stories. They are primarily animated in the same way as the present-day documentary scenes, with a younger Amin and his family in Kabul and Moscow. However, when the film leads into really upsetting scenes, the art style changes into a minimalist, almost abstract design; it’s a clever use of the medium to depict the trauma of the events. Its consistently powerful usage of animation to thematically tell the story. Along with this, Rasmussen will often cut to archival footage of Kabul, Moscow or events similar to what Amin is discussing. When juxtaposed with the animation, it makes the real footage all the more impactful and upsetting, never at the devaluing of the animation, but rather making the real-life horrors all the more surreal and unsettling. These details make the film all the more powerful; the choices of when to change the art style, when to use the archive footage, and how that impacts the audience are so crucial. Rasmussen is so precise with how he uses it.
Flee is an astonishing piece of filmmaking, considered and empathetic as they come that really tries to explore what it is to be torn from your home for people like Amin, especially at an age where you’re trying to understand yourself and your place in the world. It’s harrowing and upsetting at the best of times. Still, Rasmussen balances the tone perfectly, whether it is an innocuous joke that either he or Amin makes, a positive scene between traumatic stories, or just by letting the film breathe and letting the empathy rise above it all. It’s a harrowing tale, told with the utmost empathy, using the animation as a medium to tell its story and themes as much as it uses talking heads and dramatisations.
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