The Secret Life of “Flee”

Flee!

WE HAVE TITLE! Also, this is exactly what we fear would happen if we ever tried using a travel agent.

Have you ever looked at a list of Academy Awards nominations and thought to yourself that the competition might mean more if you’d seen at least one film in every category? You’re in luck: if you catch Flee, you’ll have an inroad to three categories at once, as multiple AMPAS branches served up three Oscar nominations for this Danish animated documentary, one for each word in that description.

The phrase “animated documentary” trips up some folks, but it makes sense in context. In Flee the filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen provides a platform for his subject, a friend called Amin who receives co-writing credit for telling the story of his early childhood in Kabul, followed by his family’s harrowing escape from Afghanistan in the wake of Soviet evacuation and Mujahideen takeover in 1989. The interview sessions and corresponding dramatizations were then rendered into the two-dimensional realm. The reality shift affords Amin and his family their anonymity without burying them in shadows, and creates a fantastical environment for filtering real-world events through the haze of his fearful youngster self. Barely recalled adults populate his backgrounds as faceless mannequins. Indistinct crowds of victims are wobbly Keith Haring outlines, frantically vague as they stampede away from the hauntingly shaded specters that stand in for their brutal oppressors.

Those distressing, waking nightmares that Amin relives contrast starkly with the present-day chats and the home-life intermissions with his partner. The couple are exploring the possibility of marriage, but Amin wants to work through his ordeals first, which he’s never shared with anyone until now. Their everyday reality takes on the ambiance of lower-key Studio Ghibli works like Only Yesterday or Whisper of the Heart, which tend to be overlooked in favor of the wilder, more magical spectacles. I was also reminded of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, whose animated adaptation of her graphic memoir likewise narrated a refugee’s story in the face of radical upheaval.

Young Amin and his family — well, most of them — escape Afghanistan with no small amount of assistance from others, but those helpers only ferry them as far as Moscow. By this time the U.S.S.R. is dying, and its depiction in The Final Days of Communism (so to speak) is not a pretty respite. Grocery store shelves are emptied, the ruble keeps on devaluing, poverty-stricken crowds mill about, and corrupt police keep stopping his noticeably nonwhite family and stealing their money as forced bribes in exchange for not punishing them for their dodgy papers. Days become years as the family overstays their welcome (not by their own choice) while a stray older brother who got all the way to Sweden tries to pave a way for them to join him. Their interminable Russia layover offers one moment of amusement when Amin and his younger brother attend the grand opening of that country’s very first McDonald’s (my own employer at the time). Their joy is fleeting as corrupt police once again barge into their lives and lead to one of Amin’s darkest moments, in which he’s brought face to face with the depths of hopelessness and powerlessness that even the native citizenry suffered.

A secondary undercurrent adds still more tension, as Our Hero notes the stresses of growing up not just a refugee who could’ve been deported back to his former homeland at any time, but also as a homosexual from a culture that, as he puts it, at the time regarded them so despicably that they didn’t even have a word for it. Papers or no papers, corruption or no, getting caught for that could’ve also gotten him sent back, or worse. The entire family maintains their cover for the duration, but Amin’s facade weighs on him as he feels he has to hide his secret from them as well. In so many ways, discovery could’ve gone horribly for him.

Eventually his journey would lead him to Denmark and a better life, but his family is rent asunder in the process. Beyond that point, Flee curiously begins winding down and yadda-yaddas the decades-long gap between his teenage self’s happy denouement and his present-day domestic bliss, a gap that impressively includes earning a doctorate from Princeton. This accomplishment is treated casually as a thing that is, with no follow-up questions about the thousand intervening steps to that success story. It’s unclear whether that remains a deliberate redaction for safety purposes, a separate set of memories Amin isn’t ready to share, or a setup of Flee as Chapter One in an ongoing saga To Be Continued.

Flee‘s Oscar odds may not be the greatest. It’s less flashy and moneyed than the other four major-studio Animated Feature nominees (I’ve now seen all five), faces herculean competition in the International Feature category (I’ve seen 3 out of 5 as of tonight), and may be a long shot in the Documentary Feature standoff against the acclaimed Summer of Soul. Taken on its own terms, awards or no awards, Amin’s story deserves to be heard, and the animated augmentation is a judiciously painted portal through which he can reveal himself at last.

(To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene after the Flee end credits, but if you missed the names of well-known executive producers Riz Ahmed and Denmark’s own Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the opening credits, they’re repeated in the end credits for, I guess, emphasis or eternal gratitude.)

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