directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen
by Angelo Muredda The past is as fluid as the rotoscoped animation used to bring it to life in Jonas Poher Rasmussen's Flee, a high-concept work of creative nonfiction whose unconventional style promises an immersiveness it can't really deliver. Rasmussen's animated documentary profile of his childhood friend, pseudonymously named Amin Nawabi to protect his identity, is intermittently moving and insightful about the horrors, the exhausting subterfuge, and the briefest moments of levity that define his life as a queer Afghan refugee, first in Russia and then in Denmark. But the opacity of its subject--whose story of family suffering, persecution, hiding, and now something like domestic stability, has frequently shifted not just for state officials but also for his friend and biographer--leaves the film as vague as its buzzword title. Moreover, Rasmussen's inability to do more with those discrepancies besides shrug at the ambiguities of first-person storytelling from far afield places plagued by civil war flattens the closing emotional pitch.
Charlotte De La Gournerie and Kenneth Ladekjær's jittery animation is a lovely, minor-key accompaniment to Rasmussen's probing interview of Amin, even if it doesn't quite reach the urban realism and longing of Edward Hopper promised by the film's TIFF logline. At times, as in the early sight of smudgy, silhouetted bodies racing to safety when the director asks his subject to answer what the word "home" means to him, the images are more evocative than the spoken text, their draft-like quality highlighting the degree to which all nonfiction retrospectives are a hazy approximation of the personal stories they tell. Beyond that familiar metafictional grace note common to any number of recent animated works on war and trauma (chief among them, Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir), there's not much to discover in Flee that isn't already in the programming notes.
Along with the frequent pop music cues--from A-ha to establish period to Daft Punk's "Veridis Quo" to switch the key to melancholy, as in Mia Hansen-Løve's Eden--and references to Jean-Claude Van Damme, Amin's first celebrity crush, there's a palatable quality to the way the coat of animation is applied to the supposed starkness of reality. That user-friendliness extends to the news stories Amin appears to remember from his youth, depicted as snippets of foreign reporting he catches late at night on TV. These archival news bulletins, real footage amidst an animated background, conveniently chart the West's changing investments in Afghanistan for what would seem to be an American audience, but they don't shed much light on the changing fortunes of Amin's family vis-à-vis the Soviets and then the Taliban. Moreover, they raise the uncomfortable question of whether the project isn't a celebrity-endorsed effort, care of producers Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, to comment cryptically on the waning days of the West's occupation of Afghanistan via the obscure and now newsworthy childhood experiences of the filmmaker's friend. PROGRAMME: TIFF DOCS