Credit: Neon
by M.G. Mailloux Featured Film Horizon Line

Flee | Jonas Poher Rasmussen

December 1, 2021

Flee is inoffensive and sweet enough, but also a totally blunt object that fails muster much actual power under the influence of its overt messaging.

Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen is not a known quantity in the U.S., though latest film Flee will likely turn that around for him. Having been working in the very trendy hybrid nonfiction mode for some years now without seeing U.S. distribution, Rasmussen suddenly has the backing of Neon and celebrity producers Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for this latest documentary. While his previous works indulged more overt formal trickery (2015’s What He Did bringing in a theatre troupe to produce recreations of a real-life assasination, 2012’s Searching for Bill uniting its subjects through a fictional narrative and shared antagonist), Flee is a mostly straightforward doc built around an interview between the filmmaker and childhood friend Amin (a pseudonym chose to conceal his identity), an Afghani refugee who has been living in Denmark illegally since adolescence. Unable to resist some kind of loud, aesthetic flourish, Rasmussen has his conversations with Amin rendered in 2D animation, offering up cartoon approximations of his interviewee’s remembrances, yet what this choice contributes to the project is mostly negligible beyond marketing potential (essentially attempting to re-employ Waltz with Bashir’s central metaphor, but to lesser effect).

The film’s primary narrative introduces us to Amin in the present, professionally successful and with marriage looming, but wracked with guilt and wary of settling down. Acting as something in between therapist and confidant, Rasmussen is able to gradually coax Amin into revealing all, detailing his journey from a mostly content early childhood in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, up through a young adulthood, spent as a refugee in Russia and then Denmark in the wake of the devastating Soviet-Afghan War. Coming of age as a gay man at a moment when Afghani culture was skewing towards religious conservatism and violent homophobia, Amin feels an additional remove from family and country beyond his literal, physical one, his sense of self unmoored and uncertain after years of enduring the burdens and anxieties of repression and displacement. One can probably already figure the line between Amin’s past and present, his involuntary rootlessness and his current domestic dissatisfactions, but Flee meanders to this conclusion, working unconvincing drama out of Amin’s shaky home life along the way. Ultimately inoffensive and kind of uncritiqueable, Rasmussen’s film is sweet enough but a totally blunt object, its jerky, flat animation failing to soften the blows of his aggressive scripting and messaging.

Originally published as part of NYFF 2021 — Dispatch 3.