Directors have been experimenting with the documentary format for a few years now.
Documentaries have always had their experimental moments, notably with Orson Welles’ F for Fake, which integrated multiple stories intertwined with each other to create a singular narrative about trickery. But over the past couple of years, we’ve seen documentarians play with the format to fulfill the goal of capturing truth through non-fiction storytelling. For example, The Infiltrators combined real footage with reenactments, using actors to showcase moments inside detention centers. The King used Elvis’ career as a framing device to explore the downward spiral of the American dream. Now, we have Flee, directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, an animated documentary exploring the life of Amin, an Afghani refugee trying to escape to Denmark.
The film takes Amin’s interviews about fleeing to Denmark and illustrates the story with a scratchy, realistic animation style. At times, Rasmussen uses news footage or stock footage, but as a whole, the film is animated. The realistic animation style is not distracting, allowing us to focus more on Amin’s interviews and the emotion behind his narration rather than the animation itself. At times, the animation gets more stylistic to reflect Amin’s emotional state and expertly puts us in Amin’s depressed or terrified mindset as he’s recounting his tales. Even Rasmussen’s use of stock footage is horrifying. There are scenes where Amin talks about getting help from human traffickers to cross the borders, at times needing to hide in shipping containers, cramped with other tired, cold, and terrified refugees. Rasmussen found footage inside those containers during the trafficking itself. The footage is raw and brutal, not graphic, but just seeing the inside of the clanking containers and hearing the waves and rain, you feel cold watching it.
Still, the filmmakers don’t just lean on their style. What makes Flee compelling is how human it depicts Amin. The film’s framing device involves Rasmussen interviewing Amin while Amin is house-hunting with his husband. Rasmussen shows that while the film is about Amin’s experience as a refugee, that experience doesn’t define him as a person. He gives Amin tons of personality, humor, and warmth. Some of my favorite moments of the film were when Amin was a kid, and he talked about his early crush on Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport. It’s just such a relatable moment for anyone who had a celebrity childhood crush. This creative decision makes us empathize more with Amin, and integrate ourselves more in Amin’s mind.
Flee is a compelling documentary and a deeply empathetic story. Amin made himself vulnerable for this film, and I can’t imagine how hard that must have felt. To find this film meaningful, you don’t need to be political or knowledgeable about Afghani history. It’s just an powerful film and I can’t recommend it enough.
Flee is now playing in theaters