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Flee (2021)

On television, adult animation has kept pace with the zeitgeist in recent years, with landmarks from Rick and Morty to BoJack Horseman. But in the cinema, Flee is the first plainly adult animation to garner mainstream attention since Waltz With Bashir back in 2008. (You could argue for the likes of Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day, or Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, but they feel more like critically-lionised cults.) TV adult animation is usually farcical. It has no link to Bashir and Flee, which are both documentary-testimonies about grim man-made tragedies. Adult animation shouldn’t be a genre, but it looks like two demarcated ones on the big and small screens.

Yet Flee is far from a clone of Bashir. In contrast to its predecessor’s collage of viewpoints, Flee is the focused story of an Afghan boy, Amin, who becomes a refugee after Kabul falls to the Taliban in 1989. Flee shows not a battlefield, but rather a living limbo. Much of the film is set in a broken-down Moscow after the Wall fell, where Amin’s family contends with new terrors. There are sadists in uniforms banging on doors, human traffickers funnelling the desperate into cages over dark water, where noone marks your drowning. And occasionally, we who’ve never known exile see ourselves – looking out indifferently over spaces that are so small, yet are unbridgeable to those on the wrong side. 

We know from the outset that Amin will live. He’s relating his story in flashback to Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, who he befriended at high school. This was after the ordeal, which Amin kept private for many years, for reasons revealed slowly. The film shifts from present to past without fancy tricks. The early scenes highlight Amin’s act of remembering as the creation of the film, as a similar act was shown in Bashir. 

At first, Flee’s tone can be light. In the opening minutes, the infant Amin scampers through Kabul’s streets in a dress while listening to A-ha’s Take on Me, a song that has its own place in animation history. He’s like the heroine Marjane in Persepolis when she was a jumping bean child, striking Bruce Lee poses and chatting with God. One of Flee’s biggest unburdened laughs is when Amin remembers his childhood crush… on Jean-Claude Van Damme, winking at him from a poster. The present-day Amin needn’t hide his orientation, as he had to growing up in a culture with no word for homosexual.

Yet even the adult Amin is withdrawn from his loving husband, and snaps at the director when he probes how Amin’s past shaped him. Through the film, we see how this mindset was formed: by forced marches with the unvarnished threat of murder, by oppressors who held absolute power, by a system that made Amin deny his family to save himself. One of the film’s worst atrocities takes place just feet away from Moscow’s inaugural McDonalds. Even in “safe” countries, there’s fear. Near the film’s end, a family member drives Amin to an unknown place, and the journey feels as chilly as Moscow.

It’s a powerful account, delivered clearly, and that’s enough to make Flee a success. But the delivery is only aesthetically outstanding in short bursts.

To call Flee animation is somewhat misleading. It’s a multimedia project that’s often held together by live-action. Other animated documentaries, including Bashir, use live-action for crucial effects, but it runs through Flee like letters through Blackpool rock. This is archive footage, showing the places and events that the characters pass through; the swinging Kabul of Amin’s infancy, the collapsing Moscow of empty shelves and hyperinflation. As in Bashir, there are glimpses of uncensored death (in footage of the fall of Kabul.) Occasionally live-action cuts into the story more directly, to give a sense that Amin or his family were here, at this precise moment. The animated characters never get superimposed over live-action, but they seem just out of shot, so that we superimpose them in our heads.

The live-action footage comprises one of Flee’s three modes of representation. The second is impressionist animation of the kind you often see in festival shorts: flickering human outlines on the brink of dissolving into an ocean of churning lines and brushstrokes, faceless figures that are overtly universal, archetypes standing for huge masses of people through the world and history. One early flashback depicts the arrest of Amin’s father, not by the Taliban but by the previous Afghan regime. The figures in this flashback are avatars of oppression, resignation and grief. (The grief is the wife’s, who stands helpless at the scene.) By sheer coincidence, it matches a crime described in a new live-action film, Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers, which has a subplot about the Spanish Civil War. This coincidence only highlights the universality of these scenes, far beyond Amin and Afghanistan.

But the evocative sequences are very short, lasting just moments, Beyond the specificity of the live-action and the universality of the abstract images, there’s… the rest of the animation. This has simple cartoon characters who don’t move so much as judder. The frame rate is one of the lowest I’ve seen in an animated feature, the epitome of functionality. It’s enough to tell Amin’s remarkable story, but it feels almost devoid of artifice. 

Occasionally there’s a nuance, of the kind you might find in a TV anime with similarly functional animation; for instance, a cut to the child Amin’s worried face as his brother promises to make him a real man. There’s room for unforced motifs; flying as escape (birds, aeroplanes), and two treasured objects that root Amin’s life, a wristwatch and necklace, that mark different phases of his growth. But in a truly weird irony, the liveliest non-abstract animation is found in a campy dubbed Mexican melodrama that Amin’s family watch blankly on TV while hiding in their brother’s apartment.

The backgrounds are far more evocative. The paintings of the plains and mountains around Kabul deserve a cinema-sized screen. Later, there’s a sequence where the characters are forced through a forest at night, and now it’s the primal background, the sinister trees and the darkened treacherous path, that make the crowd moving jerkily down it seem real.

That leads into the film’s most terrifying scene, indeed its defining one. Amin and his family are packed into the hold of a tiny boat with dozens of other men, women and children. We know the situation from the news; now Flee lets us glimpse how it feels, the awful sound of water against a groaning hull, the closeness of an unbelievably horrible death. And yet… the scene is mostly illustrated radio. So much of its power is carried by the sound, and by the adult Amin’s spare commentary and so little of it depends on the crude images… until the sequence briefly plunges into impressionism, as Amin contemplates the reality of drowning.

When evaluating animation, I tend to go by what British animation legend Bob Godfrey told me once; that the animation is never more important than what the film-maker is putting over. When I first saw Flee, I found many of the early scenes, which are often people just talking, unbearably clunky. It was impossible to ignore the myriad different ways it could have been animated better, more insightfully, more creatively. (As a British viewer, I flashed back to Aardman’s early Lip Synch films, the ones that weren’t Creature Comforts.) Once Amin’s story took over, I found the animation far less distracting, but on rewatching the film, I found the limitations loomed greater again.

I don’t find Flee as compelling as Waltz With Bashir, which has a looser narrative, but many indelible moments, or Persepolis, a less harrowing story of exile that’s still powerfully sad. I also prefer the “Young Adult” fiction tack of The Breadwinner, the Taliban drama by Cartoon Saloon, threaded through with fantasy. Flee’s story is amazing; its telling is often no more than substantial. It amounts to a good film, but not, I think the milestone that some have called it.


  A sound telling of an exceptional story..