VIFF ’21 Review: ‘Flee’ harnesses the power of animation to give its true story a greater impact

Documentary filmmaking is some of our most crucial filmmaking. They tell stories of our world and the people that live in it. How, though, do you tell a story that has no images, no film, or any talking heads to back it up. One standard route is to turn the story into fiction. Another, taken this year by director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, is to animate the story his friend is telling him, which turns out to be just as powerful a choice.

Rasmussen’s friend is Amin, a man living in Denmark with a successful career as an academic and on the verge of marrying his husband. Rasmussen and Amin (a pseudonym, to protect his identity) have been friends since high school, but it’s only as an adult that Amin finally confides his story that he was a refugee from Afghanistan who escaped war-torn Kabul in the 1980s to Russia and then to Denmark by way of human traffickers. Amin’s story is a remarkable one, and one that is both wrought with drama, danger, fear, and disappointment and is likely far more common than any of us would like to admit.

Amin’s story is about finding belonging, both as a stranger in a strange land as an adult and a stranger in a familiar land as a boy figuring out his sexuality in incredibly conservative countries. The choice to animate the story serves multiple functions, first and foremost also helping to protect his friend’s identity, but it also allows the stories of Amin’s childhood to be realized in more affecting ways. Clear memories are rendered clearly; memories that are painful or half-remembered traumas are rendered in outlines, charcoal, and the abstract.

Flee

The resulting story becomes more powerful than if it was just a conversation with Amin (which it appears to have been in actuality) and more personal and empathetic than if it was re-rendered as fiction. Stories of the hardships he endured, crossing snowy borders on food and abuses by corrupt police forces are difficult to watch even as the animation quality shifts from scene to scene because you care about the man telling you the story.

Flee tells a story that could have been told in many ways, and many of those choices may have been as powerful, but few would feel so personal, which is what sets it apart. As a piece of cinema and a documentary of one man’s story, it is effective and heartwrenching and one of the more unique films of its kind you will have the chance to see.

Flee played as part of the 2021 Vancouver International Film Festival and will be released in Canadian cinemas by Elevation Pictures in December.


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