This moving documentary pushes the limits of its genre
While film genres seem to have been completely defined, it is an artist’s job to push such limits and defy convention. Something curious is happening in the documentary genre, largely fueled by the profits of true-crime documentaries, we are now getting smaller films that difficult to categorize. Such is the case with the Macedonian Honeyland (2019) about beekeepers, or the animated documentary Tower (2016) about a Texas university shooting. The newest bold foray in challenging these conceptions comes with the Scandinavian-French collaboration Flee (2021).
Flee is a documentary about the story of Amin. Amin now currently resides in Denmark, but travels around as an academic. He is looking to take a next big step with his partner Kasper, but feels held back by his own past. Thus, he begins to unload his story on the documentary’s director Jonas, of his journey from 1980s prosperity in Afghanistan to becoming a refugee in Europe.
Flee is directed by documentarian Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Poher Rasmussen was clearly aware of the scarce funds he would be able to scrape to make Flee, and as such went about with some incredibly effective creative choices. The most obvious of these is in animating the entire film. This works in saving money from trying to find footage, and it liberates Poher Rasmussen in using visual styles to enhance Amin’s journey. The animation also serves to protect Amin’s identity, as there are still repercussions, he may suffer from telling his truth. Lastly, the animation permits Poher Rasmussen to trick viewers as to the expectations of the story they are about to witness.
By having been inundated with live images and videos of the trauma and violence suffered in Afghanistan and the Middle East at large, viewers have attached a specific set of assumptions and expectations when presented with such visuals. By changing this setting onto the animated realm - usually reserved for heartfelt stories - Poher Rasmussen is able to have viewers brush off any stereotypical expectations. This helps Flee become a character study, and for Amin to tell his story uninhibited. By animating and dramatizing certain scenes, a dramatic narrative begins to form, and the story becomes immersive. Poher Rasmussen is also plays around with the abstract, using his animation to illustrate certain trauma or emotions that would have been less impactful in live action. However, Poher Rasmussen is very careful not to let viewers dive too deep and forget that what they are watching is true. Thus, he uses tactics, such as inserting real-life footage of scenes we had been seeing as animated, or by letting his story be told in a non-linear fashion much as memory and its recounting works.
The stories of Afghan refugees and the traumas relating to the Afghan conflict are only going to become more numerous in the ensuing years. Many will be exploitative in a pity-porn way that seeks to make viewers cry and feel fleetingly bad about human pain. Flee doesn’t look for pity, or to guilt-trip Western viewers. It is solely focused, with journalistic integrity, in telling Amin’s story. Flee never tries to generalize its themes to the larger Afghan populace, which in turn better illustrates the pain being suffered by expatriated Afghans than any generalized film would have. It is by focusing narrowly on individual stories that the power and emotions of humanity at large can be appreciated.
The plights of refugees are becoming ubiquitous problems that are only getting worse. Starting to listen to individuals and stop seeing people as numbers and with fear is the only way that humanity will truly be able to move forward. Flee is a spectacular film, which not only tells its story beautifully, but pushes the boundaries of what a documentary or animated film can be.