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Flee: animation is a powerful medium for documentaries about conflict and refugees

The Danish animated documentary Flee directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen is a powerful feat of storytelling. So much so it has earned several awards and nominations.

Flee tells the story of Amin Nawabi, a gay Danish citizen and former Afghan refugee who has become a succesful academic. Audiences travel with Amin as he recalls his childhood in Kabul, Afghanistan during the rise of the Mujahideen, and his family’s escape from the country as they fear for their lives in the late 1980s.

It is the first film in the history of the Oscars to be nominated for best international film, animation and documentary. These awards and nominations speak to the importance and potential of animated documentaries to reach global audiences and illuminate key social issues.

At first glance, animated documentaries may seem like a contradiction in terms. Animation is commonly associated with comedy, children’s entertainment and fantasy. Documentaries are associated with the representation of social and political realities by means of visible evidence. The first implies escapism and subjectivity, while the latter a degree of objectivity and a form of photographic or archival evidence.

Yet, animation has a long history of being used as a tool to express political and social commentary, and was used within documentaries as early as 1918. Flee follows other animated films from conflict zones that have found international success, Persepolis (2007) and Waltz with Bashir (2008). These films use animation as means to mediate the realities of the trauma of war from a subjective point of view.

Flee, the power of animation and the personal perspective

The filmmaker, Jonas Rasmussen, has been a friend of Amin’s since they were at school together. Their relationship is key in creating an intimate portrait of the life of a refugee, as Rasmussen interviews his friend in a manner that recalls therapy. This allows Amin to tell his own story of fleeing Afghanistan as a teenager for Russia and his subsequent journey to Denmark.

In animated documentaries, the animation is usually a substitute for what live-action cannot depict. It tends to moves on an axis between realism and abstraction. In Flee the choice of using animation also emanated from the political circumstances of being a refugee. The form allows for the necessary anonymity that protects the protagonist’s identity (Amin is a pseudonym).

As the film relates to actual events it was important that the animation style maintain a connection to reality. The film’s aesthetic is therefore largely realist. Drawing scenes from the perspective of an imaginary live-action camera, the film follows many visual conventions of documentary films.

The film also intersperses news footage with Amin’s animated recollections. This provides the historical context and, combined with the realist animation, places Amin’s individual story within the social and historical realities shared by many asylum seekers fleeing Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

Where the liberating nature of animation takes full form is in parts of the film that engage with Amin’s traumatic memories. These are represented using more abstract and poetic imagery.

One of us (Yael) recently wrote a chapter in a book on animation in the Middle East. She argues that animation functions evocatively to visualise the “invisible” nature of trauma, allowing us a glimpse into the protagonists’ subjectivity. This, we argue, is where the animation in Flee holds the potential to break the stereotypical representation of refugees, homosexuality, Muslims and Afghans.

The role of film in humanising asylum seekers

Films that present the points of view of asylum seekers challenge anti-migrant views in the media and politicians who portray them as criminals. Flee goes a long way to counter these harmful narratives that continue to shape the refugee experience today. While portraying an experience in the 1980s, the film transcends its historical moment through presenting pointed parallels with the geopolitics of our current moment.

Animated still of two men in kitchen kissing.
Flee challenges the harmful stereotypical refugee narrative presenting a difficult but also heartwarming story of a multifaceted man. FinalCutforReal

In particular, the film resonates with contemporary events surrounding failures to protect Afghan refugees following the withdrawal of US and international forces in 2021, which led to the Taliban’s seizing of control of the country.

The film also highlights the differences in the contemporary refugee experience. Flee could be seen as a public relations boost for Denmark, a country that is seen to accept and integrate asylum seekers. However, the reality that Amin would face today is very different. With nationalism increasing around the world, policies that restrict migration and asylum are on the rise. Under current Danish asylum policies, it appears less likely he would have been granted asylum.

The Danish government is seeking to prevent asylum applications with new legislation that allows refugees to be deported from third countries where their applications are to be processed. This is a move that has concerned human rights scholars and EU institutions.

Through the liberating lens of animation, Flee presents a heart-warming tale of a man who is given another chance to live, love and thrive. It shows us that the world has taken steps backward in recent years, showing a more welcoming Denmark of the past. Let’s hope that governments who set immigration policies heed this tale and learn the stories behind the statistics, before turning away the asylum seekers that western policies have helped to create.

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