” Humanizing Anonymity”

Bella Honess Roe (University of Surrey)

Flee might be the first feature-length film to be nominated in both the feature animation and documentary categories at the Academy Awards, but it is far from the first film to use animation to tell “hidden” true stories of personal trauma. It is, in fact, the latest in a long line of animated documentaries that enable audiences to understand experiences far removed from their own. However, it also raises some problematic ideas about what it takes for the non-refugee to be able to identify or sympathize with a refugee’s story.

In Flee, through a series of interviews and conversations about his life as a child refugee with the film’s director, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Amin recounts his escape from Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1980s, to his purgatory in Moscow, and finally to his resettlement in Denmark. Amin and Rasmussen have been friends since meeting as teenagers, but this is the first time Amin has told his story to Rasmussen – or anyone else.

Similar to Ari Folman’s 2008 Waltz with Bashir, the filmmaking process in Flee is a quasi-therapeutic one that facilitates the recollection, reclamation, and reconciliation of forgotten, unspoken, or repressed memories. In Amin’s case, his silence is rooted in the instructions he received from traffickers to deny the existence of his family lest the authorities refuse his asylum claim. Amin has borne the burden of this denial into adulthood, something he is only now coming to terms with as he struggles to settle down, geographically and emotionally, with his soon-to-be-husband.

Like many animated documentaries, Flee utilizes animation’s aesthetic and material diversity to evoke the personal experiences of its documentary subjects, as well as to distinguish between different types of memories or psychological experiences. This is something the short, animated film Silence (Sylvie Bringas & Orly Yadin, 1998), which tells Tana Ross’s previously unspoken story of surviving a concentration camp and her subsequent life as an immigrant in Sweden, used to affectively differentiate Ross’s experiences before and after liberation by switching from a woodcut-style of black and white animation to a color palette. Analogously, Flee frequently shifts to a style of animation that emulates charcoal drawings when Amin recalls particularly traumatic events and memories. For example, this style is used when a group of refugees – including Amin, his older brother and mother, who have spent days bailing out a cramped, sinking boat on the Baltic Sea – are picked up by the Estonian border police. The abject terror of young Amin, who has “no idea what’s going on” and cannot stop “crying and crying” is evoked in the disorienting and abstract black and white animation. The starkness of the lines and instability of the juddering and roiling character outlines emphasize the fear and the vulnerability of Amin and his fellow travelers. It is in moments like this that the film’s animation is at its most expressive. The remainder of the animation is rendered in somewhat clunky graphic 2D animation that leans more towards aesthetic realism and recalls the look of Waltz with Bashir.

Black and white pencil drawing of c

As an animated documentary, Flee is far from exceptional. The way the film moves between different visual registers, including different styles of animation and live-action, archival footage, is a strategy that has been used by countless animated documentaries, often to make subtextual claims for the validity of animation as a non-fictional representational strategy or, as in Flee, to convey something about the subjects’ psychological experience. For example, Waltz with Bashir marks out the differences and similarities between present, past, and imagined through color variation in an otherwise relatively uniform animation aesthetic. In 2016’s emotionally-wrenching Tower (Keith Maitland), about the 1966 shooting on the University of Texas campus in Austin (about which I have written previously), the segue between rotoscope-animated and live action interviews makes poignant the impact of the shooting on its survivors. Animation is also often used to protect the anonymity of its documentary subjects. For example, in Gömd [Hidden] (Hanna Heilborn, David Aronowitsch, Mats Johansson, 2002), a short documentary about a young asylum seeker, animation is used to protect the subject’s identity as well as to evoke sympathy by accentuating his innocence through character design. The anonymity offered by animation was key to the genesis of Flee, according to Rasmussen. He said that it “made Amin feel comfortable with getting his story out, we could use his real voice in the film, but he could still remain anonymous,” something that was important since he has family who have since returned to Afghanistan.

Given that Flee is not breaking any new aesthetic ground and is driven by similar motives as previous animated documentaries to use the animated form to tell a non-fiction story, we might question why the film has resonated so profoundly with audiences, critics, and awards-voters. As of March 16, 2022, Flee has a “score” of 98% on the review aggregator site Rottentomatoes.com. It has been nominated for nearly 100 awards, of which it has so far won approximately forty, across documentary, animation, and international film categories. In describing Flee as “one of the most humane films of the year,” “ remarkably humanising,” and “beautiful and humane,” reviewers are noting how effective the film is in enabling a wide audience to connect personally with Amin’s story. Flee’s animation universalizes the story of a single refugee in a way that makes it relatable for those who have had no direct experience with such traumatizing events. More readily than a photographic or live-action one, an animated representation of a person allows us to project ourselves on to the image. Amin’s animated anonymity means he could be anyone, and it may be this combination of non-specific animated representation with a specific – and harrowing – story, that helps Flee connect with audiences.

You could ask what this says about us, the presumed non-refugee audience, that an anonymized and universalized refugee story has more impact and is perceived as more
“humane” than the multitude of refugee stories seen previously on film, television drama, and on the news. This question is made even more poignant by Russia’s current attack on Ukraine, and the fact that the degree of outrage expressed by the West has been, in part, because the Ukrainians fleeing for their life looked “like us.” Flee is a further example that animation has the potential to enable audiences to engage with realities that are far beyond their own experience. In this way, it is perhaps, as one reviewer states, the “complex heartbreaker our current immigration crisis demands.” However, it also begs the question of why it takes anonymized animation for us to be able to see the human in the refugee.

“The Ontologies of the Refugee”

Darshana Sreedhar Mini (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

The Danish animated documentary Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen, 2021), focuses on the Afghan refugee Amin Nawabi as he navigates displacement following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The film traces his journey as an asylum seeker as he escapes from Kabul to Moscow, and finally to Copenhagen, and narrativizes the loss, nostalgia and uncertainty that mark the life of a refugee. Interspersed with snapshots of archival footage, the film utilizes animation to foreground the voice of the subject. Flee contextualizes the process of asylum seeking as something that generates a conflicted identity that houses multiple truths. Over the course of the narration, Nawabi’s backstory changes substantially as he reveals details that he had hidden from everyone, including his partner Kaiser. In so doing, Flee exposes the structural flaws that demand refugees embody a very narrowly defined sense of “loss” translatable to western liberal notions of democracy.

As Nawabi enters Denmark as a refugee, we learn that his “public” backstory—the official narrative—has been scripted by traffickers who are well-versed in the institutional requirements of the ideal refugee narrative. We learn, for example, that Nawabi’s family members are not dead but scattered across Europe, having had no say in where each one ended up. The plight of an unaccompanied minor and sole survivor of a family accrues more validity as an asylum-seeking subject than someone who has simply escaped from the clutches of the US-sponsored Mujahedeen. In this case, the “genuine” refugee’s plea for justice must be substantiated not just by geopolitical crisis, but by incommensurable loss. But the responsibility of gathering evidence to support this testimony falls squarely on the refugee. What elides this “official” asylum narrative, however, is that Nawabi and others like him have indeed suffered immense trauma, with or without the loss of family. For Nawabi, then, the ontology of the refugee is that of a temporary person.

Flee uses temporality in a complex way—present and past are intermeshed, panels and scenes giving way to other times and other places. Traumatic memory is literally unboxed in this process. Nawabi brings out his old diaries to speak to the interviewer (and us) about his life, and it is through this unboxing that we learn two different stories about Amin Nawabi. This is also demonstrated in the sequence of the teenage Nawabi’s testimony before an asylum officer in Denmark—the more he repeats the fictional story of his family’s death, the more it becomes an embodied truth that he has to live with, as any slight variation from this narrative could mean deportation. In another sequence, as Nawabi reads from his diary to the interviewer, the words written in Dari morph into a human figure. Literally a body written into existence, the animation allows for a visualization of the psychological drama of the process, as the refugee body is often deindividualized and constructed from a palimpsest of documents, records, and numbers. Crucially, as opposed to the other colorful animated sequences, this sequence and some other flashbacks are rendered in black and white with figures that are sometimes faceless. The same technique appears, for example, in the sequence where Nawabi’s father is arrested by the guards during the communist regime, and the grey tones in the animation seeps into the grey color of his mother’s hair.

As a film ruminating on loss and trauma, Flee joins the ranks of other animated documentaries such as Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008), His Mother’s Voice (Dennis Tupicoff, 2009) and Hidden (David Aronowitsch, Hanna Heilborn and Mats Johansson, 2002). While each of these other films deal with varying themes—war (Waltz with Bashir), death (His Mother’s Voice) and the refugee experience (Hidden)—what they share with each other is the creative mobilization of the animated medium’s affordances to convey affective states. Flee joins these other films in this use of animation to represent that which cannot otherwise be visualized with indexical certitude. What sets Flee apart from these other films though, is the focus on Nawabi’s sexuality as a central arc of his refugee story.

Nawabi recounts being always interested in men and many of his childhood fantasies are mediated by cinematic references—for instance, the Indian film star Anil Kapoor, or the Belgian martial arts star Jean-Claude van Damme, who are shown winking at a young Nawabi from a deck of trading cards and a poster of Bloodsport respectively. Yet this germinating sexuality is shown to be almost stifled by the migration process. Nawabi’s perception of what his heteronormative family wants from him, especially in the context of the sacrifices made by them for his safety, weighs heavily on him. Nawabi recounts feeling dread at his own homosexuality, even visiting a doctor once, to find a “cure” for it. By the end of the film, we learn that his family accepts his sexual identity, and we see Kaiser and Nawabi happily married. This resolution of sexual identity becomes an important element in Flee’s map of global migration, as the coming-out narrative rehumanizes the flattened, unilateral imagination of the “refugee” or “immigrant” as only a victim. In this intersectional emphasis, Flee also reminds me of Arshad Khan’s 2017 documentary Abu: Father, where the filmmaker’s coming-out narrative creates a rift between him and his father, especially in the context of a Pakistani Muslim immigrant family trying to hold on to a vestige of their cultural identity in Canada.

A shirtless man winking

Flee’s evocative, dream-like (or perhaps nightmarish) animated sequences visualize the personal, psychological, and affective dimensions of the trauma of displacement. Moments of archival footage of Afghanistan (both pre- and post-Soviet withdrawal) intermittently shock us back into recognizing the materiality of the history from which the protagonist’s personal story emerges. Ultimately, Flee is also a meditation on story-telling—whose stories assume relevance for purposes of asylum, and what are the consequences of those stories? In this sense, Flee is also a call to nations in the global north to take stock of their own prejudices. Anti-immigrant and anti-refugee discourse, of course, is rife in Europe and elsewhere. But what peddlers of such discourses forget or ignore is that the suffering of Nawabi and others like him often emerge from wars not their own. Fleeing, as is often the case, is a necessity for survival, not a choice. If this means taking on an alternate personal story, this is because we—the safe havens—have made a hierarchy of whose pain counts.

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