Film Review: Flee – London Film Festival 2021

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

This devastating documentary about a family fleeing from Afghanistan is eerily prescient. Set in the 1980s, it was the withdrawal of the Russian troops that led to civil war. In 2021, the removal of American troops has led to another refugee crisis. In Flee, Amin and his family manage to escape to Moscow, but years later and safe from deportation, Amin is still on the run.

The story is so brutal that in many ways it feels right that Flee is an animated film. The illustrations, unfussy but effective, perhaps make safe some of the sharpest edges of Amin’s journey from Kabul to Russia, and, then finally, to Scandinavia. To watch this with real actors might just be too harrowing. Or, on the other hand, a live action film may have made the subject matter too familiar, a tragedy to which we’ve become horrifically desensitized. Setting it out in a new form may shock us into action, especially as more and more people risk their lives to come to Europe.

Flee looks beautiful and, possibly, there is danger in that. Should we make ‘art’ out of such stories like Amin’s? Another stunning representation of desperate people turning to people-smugglers to escape war, abuse and hunger is Flight, a story that is depicted through delicately made models that circle in a carousel. The viewer remains still as the carousel turns and lights up boxes showing how two brothers manage to escape Afghanistan. Some of the boxes look like Caravaggio paintings.

Are pieces like Flight and Flee too exquisitely made? Are Flight and Flee, both of which are, of course, informative and important, romanticising the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, masking the real horror of their journeys?

However, Flee is a documentary and so the balance between art and reality seems proportionate. We hear the voice of the real Amin while on the screen we see his face drawn with a five o’clock shadow and eyes heavy with sorrow. We hear director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, too, gently coaxing Amin to tell his story. With Amin resting upon a carpet or rug as he retells the past the interview appears more like a therapy session. Rasmussen tells Amin to close his eyes as he speaks.

Amin obviously feels relaxed talking to Rasmussen because somewhere near the start of his story, he admits to a lie that he has being telling people for years, almost half-believing in it himself. This lie and its unravelling add another layer to Flee, and explains his rather sullen attitude when his boyfriend in Denmark suggests that they marry and buy a house in the country. Amin can’t settle when he is still fleeing.

Produced by Riz Ahmed, and winning the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance, Flee is a traumatic, beautiful film. It seems impossible that it could be told in any other way.

Flee is screening at the London Film Festival

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