By A. G. Sims
Dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Denmark, NEON
In the spirit of the movies, let’s quickly rewind some recent news items. Here’s something that’ll make you sick. Earlier this week, photos taken by an AFP reporter went viral, exposing how the U.S. is handling the migrant crisis at the Texas border. In the photos, Border Patrol agents charged Haitian migrants on horseback as they tried to cross the Rio Grande, striking human beings with whips and yanking their shirt collars. If you were to try and distinguish that image from what we’ve seen in our textbooks of American slavery, you would find that you can’t.
Rewind further, and you might recall that the U.S. recently and hastily withdrew military forces from its bases in Afghanistan, immediately triggering an additional crisis of migration more than six thousand miles away. This particular scene, many acknowledged, mirrored that of another great migration: that from Saigon, after the U.S. hastily withdrew from the Vietnam war.
All in all, it’s fair to say the outlook is bleak. So bleak that you might be tempted to see it as a cosmic inevitability and ask yourself how the universe can be so cruel—why some of us are born into circumstances of shelter and stability, and others are destined to flee from country to country for their whole lives. But while you’re busy shaking your fists at the sky, I’d urge you to keep in mind that these issues of asylum are not destiny. And people were not fated to be subjugated. It’s humans that are responsible for these colonial concepts, and governments that choose to uphold them.
One of the most radical ideological challenges you could pose to your neighbor in any Western nation today is to imagine a world without borders. People are so easily talked out of it. With all its seeming impracticalities, it becomes too implausible, idealistic. But let’s try an exercise. If a world without borders is too much a stretch of the imagination, it’s a much different question when you put it like this: what’s it like to live in a world with borders?
At the 59th New York Film Festival, a filmmaker has emerged to guide us through such an exercise in human empathy. In his animated documentary Flee, Jonas Poher Rasmussen documents the life of his friend and childhood classmate, Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym), who in his teens, fled across the Baltic and landed in Rasmussen’s sleepy hometown in Copenhagen. The two met at the school bus stop when they were 15 and slowly became close friends, but over all these years, Amin never told Rasmussen, or anyone, exactly how he ended up in Denmark, or why. Amin finally opens up in Flee, an intimate retelling of his long journey from Afghanistan to safety and also, into adulthood.
Through tricks of animation and narrativization Rasmussen is able to tell a comprehensive and immersive story, one that doesn’t linger on the triumph of Amin’s survival alone. Instead, it burrows into the complexity of that survival and its emotional toll, inviting us to think also about the pieces of Amin that didn’t live on, that might’ve been permanently transformed by his trauma. And in doing so, a broader human story sprouts around these edges, about the parts of us that endure, and the parts of us that don’t.
In the movie, Rasmussen bounces between two states of time, the past and the present, including in the narrative not only Amin’s memories but also scenes from the years of interviews between him and his friend. In those interview scenes, we get a fuller picture of Amin in the present day, happily living with his partner, Kasper, in Denmark, but internally fighting off deep-seated feelings of alienation, fear, and guilt, wrought by his experiences. And the director himself becomes part of the story, as well as the “off camera” push and pull of his efforts in getting these anecdotes out of his subject. We hear many of the questions that he asks to trigger Amin’s memories, including a poignant one that opens up the film: “What does the word home mean to you?”
An animated Amin is framed from the shoulders up lying on his back on a red patterned carpet, as one might lay on a therapist’s couch, his hair cropped short, with a five-o’clock shadow shaded onto his square jaw. He begins by talking about his earliest memories of growing up “different” in Kabul, how he enjoyed wearing his sisters’ dresses and fantasized about the action heroes he saw on TV, like Jean-Claude Van Damme. (In many ways, Flee is a traditional coming-of-age story, and one of its sweeter subplots is Amin’s discovery and acceptance of his sexual identity.) In his childhood memories, Amin appears breezy and unburdened, but when asked by Rasmussen what he remembers about his father, his story turns tragic for the first time in the movie. After the insurgent mujahideen forces came to power in Afghanistan, Amin’s father was picked up by the Taliban and jailed, with family visits that went on for months before he disappeared forever. His teen brother is the first to escape, fleeing to Sweden to avoid conscription into war. Rasmussen uses archival footage where he can, to blend in historical details between animated scenes.
The film’s hallmark animation isn’t just an aesthetic departure from the norm for creativity’s sake. It smartly serves the narrative, allowing Rasmussen to place cameras in different places along Amin’s journey, where in real life they weren’t, like on the escape routes his family took from Afghanistan to Russia; inside of a shipping container on his sisters’ death-defying boat ride to Sweden; and inside of an Estonian detention center for migrants—pulling back the curtain on a cruel human trafficking industry and the human indignities vulnerable migrants must suffer for their survival. What we see on-screen is in part the conceptual work of art director Jess Nicholls, who took charge of the visual development of Flee after the early departure of Guillaume Dousse, who also receives credit for artistic development. Nicholls worked alongside animation director Kenneth Ladekjær and the storyboard team he led to create a movie out of the murky sketches of imagination, with Nicholls taking responsibility for set design and cinematography, while Ladekjær’s team handled the actual animation and movement of the characters.
The results of their labor are visually arresting. While the present-day scenes offer artistic interpretations that hue closely to reality, in his most harrowing recollections, typically in retellings of events that he wasn’t present during, the animation of Amin’s stories are more impressionistic. There are lots of shadows, outlines, and unidentifiable figures in these abstractions that capture a true-to-life rendering of how memory functions for most of us. Images are vague, colors are muted, and nothing is static. Things that were there for a moment disappear and return in waves and ripples.
Amin, his mom, and remaining siblings flee to Moscow a year after the fall of Communism, which is the only place that will grant them tourist visas. When they arrive at the cramped apartment that is their new home, Amin’s oldest brother is waiting for them. They’ll need the aid of professional smugglers to meet him in Europe, he instructs, but it will cost tens of thousands of dollars. Amin’s oldest brother returns to his job and attempts to save money to bring the family to Sweden, but after a year, he’s only saved enough for the two sisters, who have to travel on their own. When they reach him, they’re in a state of shock. They nearly died on their trip, having been placed in a locked container with dozens of others on board a cargo ship. After this and numerous brush-ups with corrupt local authorities, Amin and his mother try to flee Russia. They walk in the snow to the border, where they board a small boat that eventually overflows with water, leaving the passengers and crew stranded in the middle of the ocean. In a heart-wrenching scene, a large cruise ship comes along, seemingly to the migrants’ rescue, but then an announcement is made over an intercom that they’ll be escorted to Estonia and returned to Moscow, ending up back where they started.
Rasmussen has given many interviews since Flee’s Sundance premiere, and so he’s had more opportunities to chat about his friend and how this movie came to be. It is here where Amin’s corporeal presence is probably missed the most. Rasmussen can’t hide his journalistic instincts in sensing a story behind his friend’s silence on the details of his life. I’d love to know why Amin chose to open up now, and I would hope it was as cathartic a process as Rasmussen claims.
In the materials made available to the press, Rasmussen is quoted as saying, “As someone who is always moving from one place to another and never feeling rooted in one spot, I realized during the making of this film that he still didn’t have a home. He was somehow still on the run. But finally, being able to open up and tell his full story made him come to terms with his past, the guilt over the sacrifices his family had to do for Amin to have a good life. Alongside the process with the long interviews during the years the filmmaking—Amin realized he was ready to settle down. He could live with the traumas of his past, and be at peace in the present, a whole person.”
We are forced to take Rasmussen’s word for it, because Amin to this point remains anonymous, and to my knowledge, hasn’t made any public statements about his work on the film (beyond a quote thanking his family for their sacrifices in the credits). Journalists, in pursuit of truth, have a tendency to tell stories for the greater good without always considering who those stories belong to, whether they need to be told, and how they affect the subject. Rasmussen began trying to uncover his friend’s immigration story ten years ago, back when he was a radio journalist. “I kind of knew there was a story there, but he didn’t want to talk about it,” he told Deadline. Then Rasmussen was approached by the Animation Workshop in Denmark, and the folks there asked him if he had an idea for an animated documentary. Rasmussen thought of Amin and asked again, and he finally said yes. By including himself in the movie, Rasmussen invites us to interrogate his gaze as a white Danish observer. In the relationship between his camera and its brown subject, there is a power imbalance, even if friendly and well intentioned.
That aside, I think Rasmussen does Amin’s story justice and adds warmth and humanity to the subjects of asylum and immigration, which if you listened to UN General Assembly discussions and Congressional testimonies by generals taking place this week, you might be led to believe concern only the activities of nations, and not the lives of human beings. Now, with Flee about to open in theaters, Afghanistan has fallen, again, to the Taliban, creating a migrant crisis many worlds over, with no one willing to assume responsibility for the lives lost and displaced. Flee reminds us that whatever is to come along their journey to safety, if they in fact reach it, it is nearly impossible to survive something like this as the person you once were. Many of us will avoid such an experience in our lifetimes thanks to a trick of fate: where we happened to be born. We live in a world with borders, it’s true, but it’s not a problem without solutions and resolution if we are radical enough in our imaginations to start with a blank canvas.