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Close-Up with Camenker  Volume XXVIII, MOVIE REVIEW: FLEE

This Week for “Close-Up with Camenker,” Zach Reviews…FLEE

(February 22, 2022)

Click here for the blurb and showtimes for FLEE

If ever there was a case for doing away with the Oscar categories of Best Animated Feature, International Film, and Documentary Feature, this is the year and FLEE is the reason. This extraordinary film, which broke a record with the Academy by garnering nominations in all three of those categories, deserves a Best Picture nomination and perhaps even a win. Right now, it sits as a close second on my list of Top Films of 2021, trailing just slightly behind MASS, a heartbreaking and well-acted drama, which sadly got no nominations.

In recent years, some foreign countries have submitted documentaries as their official entry for consideration in the International Film category. Additionally, we have seen cases in the past where animated features that have gotten Oscar nominations have been in foreign languages. While these crossovers may remind us of the intricacies of filmmaking and that recognition can spread across categories, they also are further examples of why it may just be best to have only a “Best Picture” category in which films of all shapes and sizes can be nominated. 

As much as there is validity to the argument that not having these three specific categories would shut out a lot of films, just look at what happened with PARASITE. The point is that the Academy has shifted a bit and many, myself included, feel that untraditional films can make their way to the top, particularly in a year with 10 fighting it out for Best Picture. Why have a Best Animated Feature category, for example, if hits like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and UP can make their way into Best Picture (and deservingly so)?

The groundbreaking FLEE, an international animated documentary, tells the story of Amin and his incredible journey out of his native Afghanistan at a time of violence and chaos. We meet Amin right away as a grown man living in Denmark, a place he has been settled in for many years. Through his eyes, we are taken back to the streets of Kabul both before and after the rise of terror amidst a corrupt government. By choosing to animate the documentary instead of having actors re-enact the scenes of Amin’s childhood, there is a lighter and more childish quality to the picture, one that enhances the authenticity of the story. We see Kabul through a child’s eyes, the magical drawings and animated sequences coming to life as we hear Amin himself tell his story via the interview style of a documentary.

By using animation, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen creates a re-imagining of not only the Kabul sequences, but also Amin and his family’s flight from Afghanistan. He transports us back to the late 80s and early 90s, the timeframe in which the family was fleeing. The drawings, sketches, and variety of styles in which the story is re-created are fascinating to watch, particularly as the journey unfolds from Afghanistan to Russia and so on.

From a human rights perspective, FLEE is deeply moving. It shines light on the immigrant/refugee experience in a deep and personal manner as Amin recounts his family’s painful and arduous journey. The sequences of their flight, particularly the ones that involve challenge, are vivid and troubling. Ultimately, the animation paints what I imagine is a realistic portrayal of their ordeal and the ordeals of many.

We as a society need this reminder now more than ever. The story of immigrants and refugees taking years to get to their destination just to give themselves a better life than they had is universal. So many of us can recognize our own ancestors in Amin and his brothers and sisters. Additionally, seeing his homeland’s tumultuousness amidst a corrupt and power-hungry government aiming for destruction reminds us that there was no choice for Amin. It reminds us that the choice of where to go is lacking for so many, especially if they want to survive. 

Survival is a major theme in FLEE. Nowhere is that highlighted more closely than in Amin telling his own story of coming to terms with his sexuality. As a gay man, he acknowledges that he would not have survived in Afghanistan and that LGBTQ+ individuals do not exist in the eyes of the Afghan government. So much of his journey out of Afghanistan coincided with his adolescence, a key time for many in coming out of the closet and a key time for Amin in accepting himself. To see such rich representation here is wonderful, particularly for any youth themselves who are struggling to come to terms with their identity, whether their community tells them it’s okay or not.

Overall, FLEE reminds us that stories deserve to be told and heard and that they transcend cultures and backgrounds. As the director Guillermo del Toro said when he won his Oscar for THE SHAPE OF WATER four years ago, films often “erase the lines in the sand,” reminding us that, no matter where we come from, we are all united in the shared nature of the human experience. Even if your own story is as different from Amin’s as humanly possible, you will get so much out of seeing it and be reminded of the power of storytelling across borders.

See FLEE at Red River, or for free on Hulu where the English language translation is also available. While I know some have trouble with subtitles or seeing a film in person right now, this one is well worth it! I am eager to see how it stacks up on Oscar night and hope it takes home at least one of its trophies. Stay tuned!

Also stay tuned for Volume XIX of “Close-Up with Camenker,” which will return on Friday, March 11. 

Click here to learn more about Zach!

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