It’s hard to blame an average moviegoer for thinking that animation is a type of genre. Besides, most high-profile animated films tend to be comedies that aim for a family audience. But if one were to expand their cinematic horizon, they would soon realize that animation can apply to all genres. For all the family comedies that benefit from stylized drawings, there are just as many harrowing dramas that can benefit from the same thing. And nowhere is that more clear than in a documentary like Flee, which literally sketches out its main subject’s past.
The main subject, in this case, is an Afghan refugee living in Denmark (the film gives him the pseudonym of “Amin Nawabi”). Like many refugees, he has refused to tell his life story to anyone in order to protect himself. This has worked out well for him in the past few decades. However, it looks like this repression of past memories is now taking an emotional toll on him. So to free himself of this burden, he chooses to share his life story with longtime friend Jonas Poher Rasmussen (who also directs).
We soon find out that Amin was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Firstly, he grew up during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This meant that he spent his entire childhood in what was essentially a warzone. Secondly, he had to hide his homosexuality since Afghanistan does not take kindly to those who don’t follow heteronormative conventions. With all that in mind, his family had no choice but to escape the country. Even then, things do not go smoothly as he gets separated from his family in Russia. On top of that, he soon had to hide the fact he had a family, or else he would not be able to reach his final destination of Denmark.
As this is a documentary, a lot of these details come through the conversation between Amin and Rasmussen. However, as this is also animated, it avoids the artistic flatness that most documentaries have. Any time we see Amin speak to Rasmussen, it uses a visual style that involves polished line work and simplistic movements. Because of that, the contemplative expressions are more impactful and last longer. Even though the animation itself is jerky, it perfectly captures Amin’s gradual, staggered release of the truth.
Speaking of which, the backstory is where the choice to use animation pays off beautifully. In the first few minutes, Flee treats us to a scene of children running through a warzone. However, art director Jess Nicholls does not utilize the animation style from the interviews. Instead, it visualizes the action through charcoal-based sketches that almost resemble scribbles. This is far from what one would call a polished aesthetic, but it works perfectly with the film. Since it wants to depict the horrors of living in a hostile environment, it makes sense for the visual style to lean into chaos.
It’s not like Rasmussen restricts the style for that one moment, either. There are a handful of times where Amin talks about a high-stakes situation, and the movie applies this sketchy look each time. Perhaps the most striking scene revolves around his experience with border patrol officers while at sea. Instead of giving these masked officers a design that resembles humans, the film makes them appear as if they were ghouls. As a result, you see faces that essentially ovals with three holes to signify the eyes and mouth. It may be a bunch of basic shapes, but the dirty lines manage to transform those shapes into something horrifying.
Given its full commitment to sketching out the past, it’s not a surprise to say that Flee makes for a stellar drama. One could argue that the movie should have used its sketchbook aesthetic for more than just the intense moments. And if I’m being honest, I don’t exactly disagree with that assessment. As a die-hard animation fan, it’s always a shame when a project makes its most evocative visual style play second fiddle to something more familiar. Still, it’s rare for a documentary to push the boundaries of the format and also maintain a strong emotional center. Flee may not tell a narrative that people have not heard of, but it tells it with such ambition and confidence that the familiarity hardly matters. – Mark Tan
Flee will release in theaters on December 3, 2021.