Sundance Review: Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s ‘Flee’

Sundance Film Festival

Just as Waltz with Bashir did 13 years ago, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen robustly reaffirms in Flee that animation can be used not just for amusement but for any purpose, in this case to tell the harrowing story of what some refugees from Afghanistan went through in order to forge new lives in the West. This is an odyssey of seemingly unending suffering and insecurity, rendered in bold images both impressionistic and savagely real, that imaginatively reflects the brutal international odyssey the subjects endured. Spiked only briefly by useful documentary and television footage of real events, this is a special film that will find particular favor with the politically and historically minded, as well as with the gay intelligentsia. It certainly struck the Sundance Film Festival jury this way, winning the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize.


Neon acquired the film after its Sundance premiere and will co-distribute it with Participant.

With certain safeguards built in to protect the identities of some involved, the account charts the life of a man without a country who’s been perpetually on the run and/or in legal limbo for most of his life. The almost unimaginably dire tale of what the central figure, called Amin–sometimes in the company of family members–went through after fleeing the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1996, is repeatedly harrowing in the extreme; imagine being trapped with your elderly mother and others in a sealed cargo container on a boat venturing across frigid northern seas to somewhere you’ve never been with no guarantees as to your fate upon arrival. It doesn’t get a whole lot worse than that.

And yet there are personal levels in this time-jumping chronology that warm the narrative from time to time, notably a love story between Amin and a quite companionable fellow called Kasper that provides the only note of relative calm and contentment in the entire story. In a country where homosexuals were so far beyond the pale that, “There wasn’t even a word for them,” Amin recalls “falling in love” with martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme when he was 5 or 6 years old. “I was a little bit different,” he reflects, admitting to a fondness for putting on his sister’s dresses.

Other than this, however, the story starts with grimness and spirals downward from there. As Amin tells it, his father disappeared after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and his teenage brother was obliged to join the army. A decade later, the Russians cleared out and the mujahideen guerrillas and fundamentalist Taliban took over.

Documentary footage of the “last plane out” conditions at the time are terrifying; Amin and his family were able to get a flight to Moscow only at the very last minute, along with one-year tourist visas. It’s a year after the Soviet Union bit the dust, and an older brother, who lives in Sweden, is there to greet them (filling in such details as how this was so are not bothered with). The massive housing complexes look dreadful, but they still beat the alternatives.

The storytelling jumps around at times, some information is not or cannot be disclosed, a few story strands remain elusive or confusing, but none of this matters much in the face of the emotional and situational immediacy of the subjects’ desperate existences. If the eventful happenings recounted here had actually been filmed, it’s uncertain whether they would have had the same impact as do the combination of techniques employed by Rasmussen. The visuals vary, from relatively lush color animation reflecting (relatively) better times to slashing rough monochrome imagery retained to convey the more harrowing episodes. Chief among these is an illicit nocturnal sea voyage in frigid conditions on a container ship to get his mother and sisters to Sweden, which is costing the group of them about $20,000 in bribes to some distinctly dubious Russians. But what choice is there? Everyone who watches this will be well reminded of their privilege.

Some of what follows is confusing, including what exactly happened to various members of the group, and there is a big unclarified jump between the agonies of the voyage and men’s ultimately safe status in New York. But the gist is clear, and viewers everywhere will no doubt be asking themselves what they would have done under such circumstances, and whether or not they would be up to the terrible physical and psychological test of having no money and no certain destination. With great resourcefulness, Rasmussen puts you through it in a way that illustrates, instructs, makes you look inward and ask whether you’d have what it takes, if you could tough it out and survive in a cold, hostile world.

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