Danish animated documentary Flee, directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, is a powerful feat of storytelling. So much so that it has won several awards and nominations.
Flee tells the story of Amin Nawabi, a gay Danish citizen and former Afghan refugee turned successful scholar. The audience travels with Amin as he recalls his childhood in Kabul, Afghanistan during the rise of the mujahideen, and his family’s flight from the country in fear for their lives in the late 1980s .
It is the first film in Oscar history to be nominated for Best International Film, Animation and Documentary. These awards and nominations testify to the importance and potential of animated documentaries in reaching global audiences and illuminating key social issues.
At first glance, animated documentaries may seem like a contradiction in terms. Animation is commonly associated with comedy, children’s entertainment, and fantasy. Documentaries are associated with the portrayal of social and political realities through visible evidence. The former involves evasion and subjectivity, while the latter a degree of objectivity and a form of photographic or archival evidence.
Animation is a powerful medium for documentaries about conflict and refugees and Flee presents the heartwarming story of a man given another chance to live, love and flourish.
Still, animation has long been used as a tool to express political and social commentary, and was used in documentaries as early as 1918. Flee follows other internationally successful conflict zone animation films, Persepolis (2007) and Waltz with Bashir (2008). These films use animation as a way to mediate the realities of war trauma from a subjective perspective.
Flee, the power of animation and the personal point of view
The filmmaker, Jonas Rasmussen, has been friends with Amin since they went to school together. Their relationship is key to creating an intimate portrait of a refugee’s life, as Rasmussen interviews his friend in a way reminiscent of therapy. It allows Amin to tell his own story of fleeing Afghanistan as a teenager to Russia and his subsequent trip to Denmark.
In animated documentaries, animation usually replaces what live action cannot represent. It tends to evolve on an axis between realism and abstraction. In Flee, the choice to use animation also stemmed from the political circumstances of being a refugee. The form allows the necessary anonymity which protects the identity of the protagonist (Amin is a pseudonym).
As the film relates to real events, it was important that the animation style maintain a connection to reality. The aesthetics of the film are therefore largely realistic. Drawing scenes from the perspective of an imaginary live camera, the film follows many of the visual conventions of documentary film.
The film also interweaves newsreel footage with Amin’s animated memories. This provides the historical context and, combined with the realistic animation, places Amin’s individual story within the social and historical realities shared by many asylum seekers fleeing Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
Where the liberating nature of the animation comes into its own is in parts of the film that deal with Amin’s traumatic memories. These are represented using more abstract and poetic images.
One of us (Yael) recently wrote a chapter in a book about animation in the Middle East. She argues that animation works evocatively to visualize the “invisible” nature of trauma, allowing us to glimpse the subjectivity of the protagonists. This is where, we believe, Flee’s animation has the potential to break down the stereotypical portrayal of refugees, homosexuality, Muslims and Afghans.
The role of cinema in the humanization of asylum seekers
Films that present the views of asylum seekers challenge anti-migrant opinions in the media and politicians who present them as criminals. Flee goes a long way in countering these harmful narratives that continue to shape the refugee experience today. While depicting an experience in the 1980s, the film transcends its historical moment by presenting sharp parallels with the geopolitics of our current moment.
In particular, the film resonates with the contemporary events surrounding the failures to protect Afghan refugees after the withdrawal of American and international forces in 2021, which led to the Taliban taking control of the country.
The film also highlights differences in the contemporary experience of refugees. Fleeing could be seen as a public relations boost for Denmark, a country that is seen as accepting and integrating asylum seekers. However, the reality Amin would face today is very different. With the rise of nationalism around the world, policies that restrict migration and asylum are on the rise. Under current Danish asylum policies, it seems less likely that he would have been granted asylum.
The Danish government is seeking to prevent asylum claims with new legislation that allows refugees to be deported from third countries where their claims are to be processed. It is a decision that has concerned human rights specialists and EU institutions.
Through the liberating lens of animation, Flee presents the heartwarming story of a man given another chance to live, love and flourish. This shows us that the world has moved backwards in recent years, showing a more welcoming Denmark of the past.
Let’s hope governments setting immigration policies take heed of this history and learn the stories behind the statistics, before turning away the asylum seekers that Western policies have helped create.
Yael Friedman is a lecturer in film theory and practice and Deborah Shaw is a professor of film and film studies at the University of Portsmouth in the UK.
Republished from The Conversation
Posted in Dawn, ICON, May 1, 2022