Don’t be surprised in the coming weeks to hear Flee mentioned in the Oscar nominations for both the Best Animated Feature and the Best Documentary Feature. (It might not hit the trifecta with Best International Feature, but anything is possible.) Opening theatrically on Friday at the Landmark Keystone Art Cinema and Living Room Theaters in Indianapolis, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film is among 2021’s best in each of those categories … and one of the best, period.
Purely animated outside of several scene-setting snippets (and a breathtaking closing-seconds cut reminiscent of 2020’s Welcome to Chechnya), Flee is the story of Amin, a native of Afghanistan who always knew he had a tendency to be a little different. As a young boy, he wore his sister’s clothes — partially from his own predilections of identity, partially out jealousy over the presence she enjoyed with his father, long since disappeared by the time Amin’s consciousness is fully formed.
Rasmussen is a former high school classmate of Amin, who grew up to become a closeted-gay refugee and whose name has been changed to save him from the exposure of the complex lies he told authorities — and himself — to avoid the certain prosecutorial death he’d have faced in his homeland had he stayed. A childhood spent in a constant state of uncertainty has created a conditioning of fear that’s hard for Amin to shake, complicating his own mental well-being and the stability of his relationship with boyfriend Kasper. For Amin, too much comfort would betray all that was sacrificed simply for him to survive. Through his interviews with Rasmussen, Flee depicts Amin’s attempt to reclaim life from those shadows and find comfort in stillness.
Though far from 2021’s most beautiful in that space, the floating, amorphous animation affords an aesthetic about the way language and memories fade, feeling fluid and foreign, and creates expressions of heartache that a live-action counterpart simply could not. Amin’s recollection of a past relationship turning rotten uses the medium to indicate how an embrace can turn into an attack. In another instance, deep and demonic reds dart throughout Amin’s recollections of a harrowing trek until they become something tangible and concrete. It also lets us understand how seemingly innocuous everyday items like phones, watches and clocks transform into totems of doom for Amin — harbingers of the latest horror or reminders of lingering dread.
At the same time, the animation augments pop culture as both a joy in Amin’s life and a Rosetta Stone for coming to mature terms with his sexual identity. There are cheeky fantasias involving both Jean-Claude van Damme and Anil Kapoor, and Flee may have the best use of pre-existing music from any film in 2021: the sharp homage to A-ha’s “Take On Me” music video; the turbulent emotional connections Amin makes to Europop from Roxette and Ace of Base; and an instrumental explosion of Daft Punk late in the film that offers a fantastic moment of acceptance and exhalation.
There are also revelations about Amin’s journey that, in other “gotcha” documentaries, might feel like duplicitous withholding for dramatic effect. Rather, they reflect a reality that collapses into its own form of self-abstraction — one that’s no less true to the person living it because it didn’t happen to them exactly that way. The resolution to Amin’s actual story is perfect both as it took place and as he’s relayed it to Rasmussen (who even finds room in this tight, perfectly paced 90-minute story to explore the question of a documentarian’s supposed objectivity). Flee is an unforgettable odyssey through one man’s crucible of coming to terms with his true self.