The first film to be nominated for Oscars for Best International Feature, Best Documentary and Best Animated Feature simultaneously, this animated biographical documentary about an Afghan refugee is innovative and astonishing.
February 17, 2022
When Flee won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, it collected its first accolade. The wrenchingly affecting animated documentary hasn't stopped notching up deserving acclaim since. A spate of other gongs have come its way, in fact, including a history-making trifecta of nominations for Best International Feature, Best Documentary and Best Animated Feature at this year's Oscars, becoming the first picture to ever earn nods in all three categories at once. Mere minutes into watching, it's easy to glean why this moving and compassionate movie keeps garnering awards and attention. Pairing animation with factual storytelling is still rare enough that it stands out, but that blend alone isn't what makes Flee special. Writer/director Jonas Poher Rasmussen (What He Did) has created one of the best instances of the combination yet — a feature that could only have the impact it does by spilling its contents in such a way, like Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir before it — however, it's the tale he shares and the care with which he tells it that makes this something unshakeably exceptional.
Rasmussen's subject is Amin Nawabi, an Afghan refugee using a pseudonym. As his story fills Flee's frames, it's also plain to see why it can only be told through animation. Indeed, the film doesn't cover an easy plight — or a unique one, sadly — but Rasmussen renders every detail not just with eye-catching imagery, but with visuals that flow with empathy at every moment. The filmmaker's protagonist is a friend of his and has been for decades, and yet no one, not even the director himself, had ever previously heard him step through the events that the movie chronicles. Amin is now in his 40s, but he was once a kid in war-torn Kabul, then a teenager seeking asylum in Copenhagen. His life to-date has cast him in other roles in other countries, too, on his journey to house-hunting with his boyfriend as he chats through the ups and downs for his pal.
That path — via Russia and Sweden — is one of struggle and acceptance. It's a chronicle of displacement, losing one's foundations and searching for a space to be free. It's also an account of identities fractured and formed anew, and of grasping hold of one's culture and sexuality as well. Flee explores how global events and battling ideologies have a very real and tangible impact on those caught in their midst, a truth that the feature's hand-drawn look underscores at every turn. And, it's about trying to work out who you are when the building blocks of your life are so tenuous, and when being cast adrift from your family and traditions is your status quo. It's also an intimate portrait of how a past that's so intertwined with international politics, and with the Afghan civil war between US-backed rebels and the nation's Soviet-armed government, keeps leaving ripples. Plus, Flee examines how someone in its complicated situation endures without having a firm sense of home, including when acknowledging he's gay after growing up in a place where that wasn't even an option.
Clearly, Flee is many vivid, touching, devastating things, and it finds an immense wealth of power in its expressive and humanistic approach. There's a hyperreality to the film's animation, honing in on precisely the specifics it needs to within each image and discarding anything superfluous. When a poster for Jean-Claude Van Damme's Bloodsport can be spied on Amin's 80s-era Kabul bedroom, for instance, Rasmussen draws viewers' eyes there with exacting purpose. There's impressionistic flair to Flee's adaptive style as well, with the movie firmly concerned with selecting the best way to visually represent how each remembered instance felt to Amin. A scene set to A-ha's 'Take on Me' presents a fantastic example, especially given that the Norwegian group's pop hit is famed for its animated music video — something that Rasmussen happily toys with.
Flee uses its music cues bewitchingly well across its entire duration. The sounds of Swedish duo Roxette are never unwelcome echoing from screens large and small, as everything from Pretty Woman and Long Shot to Euphoria have capitalised upon, and the use of 'Joyride' during a plane trip is a sublime masterclass in emotional juxtaposition. And, when the movie lays bare its most stunning sequence in a club where Amin wholeheartedly embraces his sexuality, it's immaculately soundtracked to Daft Punk's 'Veridis Quo'. Flee isn't the first feature to lean on that particularly enchanting song to such strong effect, after Eden did as well, but the tune's use here is nothing short of divine. Of course, any movie can whip up a killer soundtrack, but it's how these songs are deployed to so perfectly encapsulate exact slices of Amin's life that's repeatedly phenomenal.
We all listen to music to help us process the world, and our traumas. We're all drawn to images to aid in doing the same, and we each have recollections of life-changing events that are tied to pop culture — the songs we heard, the movies we loved and the like. Flee is as skilful as films come at conveying this sensation, which is a coming-of-age staple. Yes, that's another genre that this animated documentary biography, which boasts actors Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) among its executive producers, also slots into commandingly. How astoundingly it achieves everything it sets its mind to is breathtaking, especially the feat that it its number-one aim: giving Amin's plight the attention, justice, respect and room to resound that it deserves, all while making it clear that this is just one of countless refugee stories with similar complexity.
Evocative from its first glimpses to its last (including when it weaves in IRL footage from news clips and protests), Flee overflows with individual successes, be it scenes that glow with potency, animation choices that express a world of feeling, pitch-perfect needle drops or the pure details of Amin's life. Every description they earn applies to each second of this poignant and shattering feature, too, which manages something truly extraordinary overall. To peer into Amin's eyes, as painted here with nothing but lines, shapes, colours and pixels, is to feel like you're staring deeply at the flesh-and-blood Amin. Flee takes us home to him, while mirroring the reality that home has been a constantly shifting concept for its subject, and for everyone else who has shared even part of his journey. No wonder this film proves so innovative, sincere, heartbreaking, harrowing and poetic in tandem, and also simply astonishing.