FLEE – Review
This weekend sees the release of a new documentary concerning a subject that’s been covered extensively in the news over the last several years: the refugee crisis in the Middle East. Yes, it’s been part of the political debate, and countless reports have flooded the news outlets, not to mention feature-length and short-subjects “docs”. And yet this one feels fresh and immediate. Perhaps that’s due of the medium as this is an animated feature (well, about 95% of it), proving that that said medium (it’s not a genre) can be used to tell all sorts of stories (remember Spidey grabbing an Oscar, and the stop-motion drama ANOMALISA). Plus it’s a most intimate tale as it’s a coming of age saga related by a man whose later lifestyle would leave him no choice but to FLEE.
This true story of the now-adult Amin (voice of Riz Ahmed) commences in present-day Copenhagen as he is interviewed by a former classmate and friend Jonas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Amin isn’t eager to share painful childhood memories, as he finishes his education in the US while starting a home with his partner Kaspar. But he indulges his pal with early recollections of growing up in Kabul, during the turbulent 1980s. He romps through the dusty streets while clad in one of his sisters’ dresses, dashing into the kitchen just as his grey-haired mother prepares Dinner. Many of those silver strands came from losing her military pilot husband who was arrested when the new communist regime took power. As the battles crept closer to the city, Amin’s family had no choice but to escape. Luckily his oldest brother, who’s a “cleaner’ in Sweden, meets them in Moscow, the “holding place” until they can join him (he’s trying to get the funds together). Over the next months, the family must hide in the tiny Russian apartment, avoiding the police, as they attempt to leave the country via arduous hiking and a rusted cargo ship all arranged by brutal human traffickers. Through it all, Amin trudges forward while realizing that his sexuality would prevent him from ever returning to his homeland.
Much as with the aforementioned SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, the art of animation is elevated beyond family fables and musicals, to delve deeply into one man’s journey, both geographic and emotional. And though much of the current animated fare is done digitally, this film harkens back to the golden era of hand-drawn, or 2-D, films with the look of a graphic novel brought to vivid life. The main characters are given a simple outline, the thickness resembling a pen point or perhaps a well-worn marker. Basic curved lines and slashes represent the main features like eyes and noses. The colors are natural and subdued, often bathing the characters in a hue to emphasize their moods or the urgency of the sequence (the blues make us feel the cold during a winter trek through the snowy woods to the “escape vessel”). Yet there’s still room for moments of whimsy that might not have worked with live-action (a wink from an 80s action movie star). Early on, we even get a homage to a sketched MTV staple from A-Ha. Best of all, the choices help us focus on Amin and his family, as the bystanders are often rendered with blank faces, while the most harrowing memories are down with a jittery urgency with silhouettes blurring across pale color swatches. And kudos to the sound mixers who place us right in the middle of brutality, then suddenly escort us to the bliss of the countryside. It’s a triumph for the director Jonas Peter Rasmussen who co-wrote the film with its subject Amin Nawabi (their screen voices, Ahmed and Coster-Waldau, are also part of the producing team). My biggest compliment is that it feels like a feature version of the great shorts from the National Film Board of Canada (the highlight of many traveling animation fests). With its distant approach, FLEE. puts us right in the well-worn shoes of this weary world-explorer.
3 Out of 4
FLEE is now playing in select theatres