Monday 7 February 2022

Drawing it out: "Flee"

Maybe Danish cartoonists aren't such a bad bunch after all. Amid a crop of awards contenders throwing back to predecessors in their field - fresh thinking apparently being at a premium during this everlasting brainfog of a pandemic -
Flee presents as this year's Waltz with Bashir, a work of non-fiction that uses animation to steer, enhance and sometimes smooth over the bumpy true-life story its subject is telling. That subject is credited onscreen as Amin, a refugee who arrived in Copenhagen at the turn of the 1990s, having earlier seen his father rounded up and disappeared by the Afghan authorities. As the film opens, the animated Amin can be seen and heard briefing the filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen on his childhood memories of Kabul - most dynamically, running through the city's streets in his sister's nightgown while listening to A-Ha's "Take on Me" on his Walkman, a formative image of personal freedom that sits in stark contrast with everything that follows. Amin seems to realise as much himself - and that the process of revisiting the past may be more painful than he perhaps realised going in. Just as we're settling in, he breaks off, and we realise that Flee isn't just going to tell Amin's story, but document its own variably troubled years of making. Arguably, the result goes further in some respects than Waltz with Bashir, by folding in some explicit acknowledgement of the courage required to go back over a story as bruising as this with camera and sound rolling. In the interview scenes, we see an animated Rasmussen looking on as Amin lies flat on his back, the recollections pouring out of the heaviest of heads. It's testimony as therapy, really: how impactful you find the film may depend on how comfortable you are with eavesdropping on that process, though maybe a story like this isn't meant to make us comfortable.

We didn't realise back in 2008, but Waltz with Bashir was drawing up a whole new subgenre of confessional docufiction, films that melded the harsh, metallic, blood-in-mouth tang of lived social and political actuality with the sensibility and accessibility of a child's picture book. I found Bashir crushingly powerful at the time (with some caveats); have had no particular desire to return to it since (a natural reaction to a film that crushes you); and have since developed misgivings with hybrid forms as a filmic tool. There's a jarring disconnect here between the softness of the animated surfaces and the archive footage Rasmussen cuts in of bodies burning in tanks and refugees being brusquely stuffed into trucks. Arguably, those cuts are where Flee is most honest, because they're where Rasmussen admits to the limitations of his own project: that it's very hard to animate the dead, and to colour in the darkest corners of man's inhumanity. Yet Waltz with Bashir did, if I recall correctly; is that why I found the earlier film far more affecting, for all Flee's abundant good intentions and evident sensitivity? What Rasmussen's animation can do is pick out detail that has the specificity of lived experience and accentuate it in a way humdrum dramatic reconstruction probably couldn't. A border crossing is delayed by a child's light-up trainers; shadows roil around the inside of the hull of the cargo ship carrying Amin and his family to Sweden. Here is the vividness of memory; the stuff that's hard to forget. Same goes for Amin's eventual passage into a Copenhagen gay club, a few small steps that speak to the acceptance he'd long been stumbling towards. You'd be a grinch if you weren't happy to see him there, and to see him finally starting to overcome the trust issues his journey had left him with. Yet I'd be a liar if I claimed I found Flee more moving than either In This World or The Golden Dream, outright fictions that nevertheless spoke to the migrant experience with an even greater directness.

Flee opens in selected cinemas from Friday, and will also be available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.

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