Animation films can conjure worlds that don’t exist, furnish a picture of how things could be. But they can also make interventions into our world, make visible all that is unseen in it, all that refuses to be seen. It is perhaps for its expressive qualities that some of the better animated films of recent years have put it at the service of real biographies. Persepolis (2007) described a young Iranian girl’s search for identity in Europe. In Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), an army veteran struggles with the memories of the 1982 Lebanon War. In Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s new work Flee (2021), a refugee gathers courage to recount his painful journey from Afghanistan. The film has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, Best Documentary Feature and Best Animated Feature — an unprecedented combination.

The refugee in question is Amin (a fictional name), a man of about forty who fled the Taliban with his family as a young boy. Amin, his mother and his three siblings took shelter in post-Soviet Moscow and waited for his elder brother in Sweden to help them into Europe. In Moscow, the family was harassed by the police for overstaying their visa and were threatened with repatriation. With the help of small sums of money, Amin’s sisters were smuggled into Sweden in subhuman conditions. Amin’s fate was determined by his trafficker, who dispatched him to Denmark, away from his siblings, with the instruction that he should never talk about his family. After decades of silence, Amin finally opened up to filmmaker Rasmussen, his long-time friend, resulting in the film.

Rasmussen has a background in radio and he says he initially approached Flee like a radio documentary. Over four years, he interviewed Amin at his own convenience and pace — a process that is illustrated in the film — and amassed over fifteen hours of testimony. At some point, he expanded the project into a documentary film. Amin was concerned that this might expose his identity and bring him unwanted attention. When Rasmussen got a chance to participate in an animation workshop a while later, he found a solution to the dilemma: the project would now be an animated docudrama.

Rasmussen condensed the material he had gathered down to around two hours, which then served as the base for an animation team led by Kenneth Ladekjær. Sifting through many visual styles, Rasmussen and Ladekjær decided on a kind of hand-drawn, 2-D animation that, while vivid in its anime-like discontinuities and its lack of photographic smoothness, does not diminish the gravity of Amin’s experience.

This process meant that the narrative was strictly guided by Amin’s words. Even details that aren’t accompanied by his description have the texture of recollected memory: a young Amin brushing his sister’s hair as she trades Bollywood cards with a friend, posters of Bloodsport or Mardon Wali Baat in his bedroom, point-of-view shots of treetops or street lights as Amin is being trafficked through forests and cities.

The choice to animate the film helps conceal Amin’s identity, but it also serves to solve an ethical problem. Flee contains several harrowing passages of human suffering that would have been questionable were they dramatized using actors: Amin’s sisters being transported in cargo containers, his family traveling in the deck of a trafficking boat or Amin fleeing the mujahideen. During these episodes, the film’s animation segues into black-and-white abstraction such that we only see the barest details of what follows. The result retains the horror of the events while affording us a necessary distance from them.

It isn’t that Rasmussen doesn’t want to show violence and hardship on screen. Woven throughout Flee are archival newsreels and TV clips, presented in a boxed-in frame, of the unrest in Afghanistan following the communist overthrow of the monarchy, the civil war after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, a sordid refugee camp in Estonia and other scenes of human trafficking. Some of these are disturbing, bloody scenes. It is rather that, in animating the personal experience of refugees like Amin, the film offers private images where public archives fail. In the process, the film is able to develop a more rounded portrait of displaced persons than what the media presents.

In framing Amin’s past through his interactions with the filmmaker, Flee foregrounds testimony over truth. After all, Rasmussen has no other material to corroborate his subject’s account. But this reflexivity isn’t used to cast doubt over his friend’s past. Late in the film, Amin recalls being unable to control his tears while recounting his story to the Danish authorities as a teenager, even though this story was made up by the traffickers who brought him into the country. The film’s focus is not the accuracy of Amin’s recollection of his past, rather the weight that this past has on his present.

To this end, Rasmussen intersperses Amin’s biography with tensions from his present life. Amin’s boyfriend Kasper is looking for a new house in the Danish countryside for them to settle in, but Amin has plans to move to the US to pursue his post-doctorate — a fact that he reveals to Rasmussen first. One prospective house reminds Amin of his time at an asylum, and he is worried about slipping into depression at this new place. On the other hand, Amin’s constant peregrination rests heavily on him and he expresses a wish to settle down. But this desire for home is strained by Amin’s quest for academic excellence, which he feels he owes his family, who sacrificed everything for his survival.

Flee illustrates with remarkable economy how Amin’s traumatic past has a strong bearing on the image he has of himself and others. He feels responsibility for his elder brother not being able to start a family because the latter had to spend all his money trying to rescue his siblings. The freedom and sense of self that Amin gains as a gay man in the West comes at the cost of a sense of community that he had back home in Afghanistan, where his queerness would have brought his family into disrepute. Amin’s progressive acceptance of his homosexuality is thus accompanied by a progressive dissolution of his family. In that respect, until the confession that is Flee, he has always had to lead a double life where a part of his identity had to be kept under wraps.

Rasmussen knows Amin since high school, but it reportedly took Amin twenty-five years to be finally able to tell anyone his story. Amin explains this reticence in terms of the fear of being repatriated by the authorities — a fear that became a real threat when he confided once to an ex-boyfriend. “When you flee as a child, it takes time to learn to trust people. You’re constantly on your guard, even when you’re in a safe place,” notes Amin as he lands back in Copenhagen after his post-doctorate. At the airport, he stares at Kasper from a distance for a long while before approaching him. It isn’t just that Kasper represents a “safe place,” but also that he represents home — an idea that is inextricable from anxiety for Amin, who has always had to flee it despite himself.


[First published at News9]