Friday, January 21, 2022

Fleeing Toward a New World

So you think you’ve got troubles? Thoughts of the Omicron variant getting you down? Well, stop and consider the plight of Amin, who as a young boy fled Afghanistan with his mother and older siblings, after his father disappeared into the clutches of a cruel regime. Paying traffickers for safe passage out of the country, the family ends up in Russia, where they endure in hiding, hassled by cops looking for bribes. As the years pass, their lives become no less harsh. Two sisters barely survive a ghastly trip to Sweden in a shipping container. For the remaining trio, including the aged mother, there’s a forced march involving guides ready and willing to shoot stragglers, followed by a grim winter sea voyage in the hold of a leaky ship. (The bedraggled refugees make it almost to Norway, and are photographed by excited passengers from the deck of a luxury liner, then are promptly sent back to Moscow.) 

 Amin’s story is told in Flee, an international co-production guided by a writer/director, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, who befriended the actual Amin in Denmark and slowly learned the details he’d hidden within himself for so long. Part of what haunts Amin, though now living a pleasant life in the Danish countryside, is the fact that he was once sternly instructed never to disclose that his family members were still alive, for fear of endangering his refugee status. Deeply feeling the debt he owes to his elder siblings, who risked their own happiness to secure his future, he can’t get past a strong sense of guilt and thwarted obligation.

 It's partly to protect Amin’s identity that his story is told through animation, with the tale’s actual hero never appearing on screen. The framing device is simple: a graphic version of the adult Amin, often staring straight forward as if into the lens of a camera, haltingly discloses the twists and turns of his life to his filmmaker-friend. Rasmussen’s gentle questions lead us into enactments of various segments of the life Amin is recalling. What’s striking is the way the style of animation shifts from scene to scene. Family members are portrayed hyper-realistically—we see beard stubble and adolescent skin blemishes—and the characters are often set against backdrops that are nearly photographic in their realism. Then, as disaster strikes yet again, the animator’s palette shifts briefly into blacks and greys, with fleeing figures looking almost ghostly as they butt up against enemies both human and metaphoric. There are also interspersed moments of documentary photography, showing the crowded streets of Kabul, the gloomy byways of Moscow, the bright lights and skyscrapers of New York City.

 It's not all gloom. We experience the swirling excitement of a Swedish gay bar (yes, that’s another aspect of the challenges Amin faces), and we also revel in the peaceful landscape of Denmark. And sound design too contributes to the kaleidoscopic effect: we hear actual clips from newscasters and politicians, and Amin (especially in childhood) finds a happy, though short-lived, retreat in the American pop music that blasts through his headphones.

 Flee is an artistic tour-de-force, while also being a provocative look at one man’s personal refugee crisis. No wonder the film has won so many critics’ awards, and seems likely to be nominated for Oscars in more than one category. It’s, at one and the same time, a foreign language feature, a hard-hitting documentary, and an animated film that’s worthy of going up against Pixar’s usual brilliance. And if you watch Flee—for a while, at least—your thoughts of COVID will be far away.

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