Flee: Scar Tissue, by David Bax
There’s always a tinge of suspicion that bubbles up in me when I sit down to watch a smaller, independent film and am immediately greeted by recognizable names listed as producers. At what point did they come onboard? And to what extent is their imprimatur the reason this movie is now in front of me? Such worries are probably unfair and, in the case of Jonah Poher Rasmussen’s Flee (brought to you by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau!), mostly unwarranted. Whatever reason these stars had for attaching themselves to this project, the film is a good yarn that nobly aims to be something more, a sharp, specific investigation into a single human mind that—of course—reveals much about human minds at large.
Okay, that sounds heavy. And the movie is that. But there’s also a slight sense of fun to it. I mean, there ought to be, given that it’s an animated movie. Flee is a documentary whose subject, Amin, did not wish to be seen on film. So Rasmussen decided to rotoscope him in interviews and animate dramatizations of his memories. The possibility for cheekiness here does emerge and hits its peak with the use of A-ha’s “Take on Me” on the soundtrack, a song whose famous video uses similar visual techniques. But that sense of humor dissipates as the film goes on; understandably so, as the story of Amin’s journey from Afghanistan to Denmark takes on more saddening dimensions.
Still, a bit of lightness is missed as it is, counterintuitively, not provided by the animation. The look of Flee is tasteful and inoffensive but it’s the movement, the way the characters’ arms and leg jerk as they walk, that makes the whole thing feel somewhat low-rent. I found myself looking forward to the occasional bits of live-action archival documentary footage, usually used to illustrate the general nature of a place along Amin’s path, from the Afghanistan of his youth to a barely operational refugee holding facility.
To some degree, Flee is a quick primer on the history of Afghanistan in the late twentieth century, especially the Mujahideen insurgency against the Soviets that lasted most of the 1980s. The film is more striking now, though, for the parallels to America’s own recent history in the country, including some more direct than Rasmussen could have known when he started making the movie. We hear a television pundit predict that, “Afghanistan will be another Vietnam for the U.S.” But when you hear stories of Americans fleeing the country in droves and people being killed at the airport, Saigon won’t be the first thing you think of.
Still, these macro concerns, no matter how stark, are not what makes Flee remarkable. This is Amin’s story, not one of Afghan refugees in general. His family’s need to get out of the country is as crucial to the film as his experience as a closeted gay kid. The action movie posters on his childhood bedroom wall featuring bare-chested men (rendered in cartoon form) and his affinity for the films of Anil Kapoor are cute and funny but they also speak to a tragedy of self-repression. Later sequences like the one in which Amin and his brother are shaken down by Russian cops have an extra layer of anxiety to them because of the peril of Amin being outed.
Amin’s homosexuality is the first secret he learned to keep but not the last one of such magnitude. Flee represents the first time he’s telling the full truth of his life to anyone, including his good friend Rasmussen. This isn’t really a movie about being a refugee or being a gay man. It’s a movie about the damage that keeping secrets does to the mind and soul.