Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Flee (2021) dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Opens Friday, 1/21 @ Coolidge


Recalling stories of trauma has unfolded from many different basins — multigenerational, historical, a single personal event — but Jonas Poher Rasmussen opens an old wound in capturing the emotional conditioning of a refugee in Flee. At the focus of Rasmussen’s first full-length visual documentary is Amin (a pseudonym), an Afghan immigrant who, for the first time, recounts the story of his family escaping the war-torn country. For anyone who experiences displacement in their second, or maybe even third or fourth, established home, his experience echoes that hidden, sometimes senseless fear, that nothing can ever be permanent.

The documentary is broken up into three concurrent sections: Amin’s story of escaping from the Soviet-Afghan War, present-day Amin telling this story, and Amin navigating his current life with his partner in Denmark. The choice in animating present-day Amin talking about his past may have been to primarily foster anonymity, but in switching between Amin’s secrecy and having real-life events displayed through a camera in broad daylight, Rasmussen further distinguishes the stark contrast between Amin’s attempts to hold a precise control of privacy and for those who can live freely and without concern. Rasmussen’s background is in radio storytelling, and he uses this experience to coordinate between Amin’s words and the way the animation builds tension, allowing a limitless imagination that still remains focus and true to details.

What Flee excels in is the emphasis of fragility. Sometimes it takes place in the dialogue; in pre-war times, Amin’s older sister recounts a conversation she had with their pilot father (who went missing), who had once exclaimed, “If you press this button, the plane will go kaboom!” In heavy moments of stress and narrow escapes, the animation becomes amorphous and borderless, which tracks with the feelings of uncontrolled anxiety and loss of rationale in these types of situations (I’m reminded of If Anything Happens I Love You). Through Amin’s lens, his freedom is tied in with fragility where, at a snap of the fingers or one glare from a corrupt officer, Amin could be uprooted back to Afghanistan, locked up in unsafe conditions, or simply disappear.

There is also the tinge of bittersweet nostalgia that comes in small waves. Amin, who identifies as gay, recalls pivotal moments that may have indicated as such: the lingering gaze at Jean-Claude van Damme in Bloodsport or parading down the streets of Kabul in his older sister’s nightgown to a cheeky “Take on Me.” There is also a touching memory in which Amin remembers an older boy giving him a gold chain necklace before they departed at the airport. Whether it’s the same gold chain that present-day Amin wears during his interview might not be as important as the healing impact of kindness that comes in hand with scar tissue.

dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen
90 min.

Opens Friday, 1/21 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre (Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test required for admittance)

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