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Flee proves that we truly are in a golden age of animation

A refugee's story, told in animated documentary, is putting displaced people at the heart of the story.

Bafta-nominated Flee uses animation to tell a very human story of life as a refugee Photo: Final Cut for Real

There’s a lot to be said about the way cinema tackles refugee stories and the innovative creative choices that filmmakers recently, especially, have been making.

In The Big Issue, we’ve explored the subject in conjunction with the release of the stellar British film Limbo. Ben Sharrock’s wry comedy – about a displaced Syrian musician waiting for asylum on a remote Scottish island – stands in stark contrast from Waad al-Kateab’s For Sama, a first-person love letter to her daughter while detailing the devastating bombardment of Aleppo. Then there’s Remi Weekes’ His House, which presented the plight of a Sudanese couple faced with a supernatural threat in their temporary English accommodation after escaping the horrors of war. 

These are all films that put these displaced individuals at the centre of the story rather than continuing the trend of relying on a Western saviour to pique Western audiences’ interests.

Now we have the Bafta- and Oscar-nominated documentary Flee to add to this canon, a film that utilises animation to beautiful and evocative effect. Although this aesthetic choice is not simply a creative one: it serves as an essential narrative device to allow its protagonist to feel liberated enough to tell his vital story. 

Amin is a gay man and academic on the precipice of marrying his partner. But to get where he is today he had to escape Afghanistan as a teenager. With the help of old pal and director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Amin recounts the harrowing ordeal, a several-years-long journey that saw him fleeing his home country to Russia before eventually finding his way to Denmark, where he is currently settled.

Amin, however, is not his real name; it’s a pseudonym to protect his identity, with the animation providing that extra layer of anonymity. 

Rasmussen had spent several years trying to convince his friend to share his story, and it was only at the suggestion of presenting it as an animated documentary that Amin agreed to take part. The creative team at Sun Creature Studio were able to work with the interview footage of its subject, filmed over several years. They translate his every nuance and gesture into a tactile animated avatar that reflected both the physical and psychological struggles of reliving traumatic memories the animators were able to visualise in culturally rich and sensory fashion.

The avoidance of cartoonish characters also ensured the emotional resonance was never lost; whether it’s Amin talking to Rasmussen in the present or his younger self experiencing the pangs of adolescent desire while hiding in the back of a van with a fellow young man seeking a safer life. They are fully realised individuals, not faceless statistics of a global crisis. 

Certainly, when it comes to the Middle East and Southwest Asia, animation has proved to be a powerful way to cut through the gritty, yellow-scale representation frequently found in live-action films set in these regions. Flee, instead, vividly portrays the vibrant echoes of Amin’s history to show an Afghanistan beyond the war-torn images that dominate the news.

It follows in the footsteps of such lauded works like 2017’s The Breadwinner and 2007’s Persepolis, two relatable coming-of-age stories about young girls navigating religious orthodoxy, misogynistic attitudes and political savagery, that easily hold their own against any Western offerings in the genre.

The theatrical flair of these films can be recognised in 2017’s Tehran Taboo too. Filmmaker Ali Soozandeh circumnavigated Iran’s strict filming laws by using rotoscope animation in order to tell the story of three women and a male musician struggling to cope with the legal and cultural double standards caused by the country’s strict religious mandates. Using live-action filming of actors in front of a green screen, the filmmaker was able to insert background and architectural detail of Tehran to make it look and feel like a true Iranian story while advocating for social change.

The critical acclaim for all of these films confirms what many filmmakers and critics have long been saying: we are in a golden age of animation, there is a growing appetite for animated dramas beyond the usual Disney/Pixar fanfare and the film industry needs to take more chances in funding these endeavours. 

Animation is a stunning art form. Films like Flee prove just how essential it is as a filmmaking device to ensure that no story ever needs to go untold.

Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic.

@HannaFlint 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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