Sundance 2021 review: Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen)

Perhaps displacement is the keyword to better understand the 20th century. Wars, genocides, economic crises, constantly redrawn maps, and environmental tragedies were amongst the many reasons why people were forced to leave everything behind. Yet none of the aforementioned motives were new or exclusive to the last century, for mankind’s history has been nothing but one full of sound and fury; so why was the last century so undeniably marked by them? Maybe it was a moment in time in which constant crisis met an uncontrollable obsession with progress and urgency to drop the old and embrace the new; maybe there was nothing wrong in doing so. However, it is about being able to recognize that nothing creates more ruin than progress.

On this ground, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee can be seen as a metaphor for one of the last century’s ruins, one left behind by the constant and violent friction between past and present, one between a new world that is being born, and the old one that refuses to die. Amin, its case of study, is forced to flee his country like many others, and after a failed attempt that almost cost him and his family their lives a consensus is reached and Amin must be sent alone. It is deemed safer, if anything in this situation could be called safe. His journey is told by an adult Amin, now living in Denmark with the man he loves, something that already is more than he could ever imagine. As he says about his country back then, “There was not even a word for homosexuals.” And as Ocean Vuong writes in his On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, “Without a name, things get lost.” Still, on the topic of Amin’s sexuality the documentary makes an extra effort to highlight how even as an adult, living in Europe for years, he still feels uneasy about the idea of moving in and marrying his partner because he does not know how to be still anymore. His life in Denmark was constructed against his identity as a refugee, and as he remembers his first attempt to migrate, only to get stranded on a boat while people on a huge ship took pictures and called the authorities, the refuge is something that never seems to last long enough.

Soviet writer Svetlana Boym, an exile herself, wrote a lot about what she understood to be the sickness of the last century, nostalgia; and it was in her book The Future of Nostalgia that she wrote that “Nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into a private or collective mythology.” Possibly nostalgia is how one refuses to let the present consolidate, and as he nostalgically thinks about braiding his sister’s hair and wearing her nightgown just for fun, even after all the violence he endured, Amin is also saying no to his present as a refugee, an abstract idea made concrete as a political way to separate people and classify some as less than others.

All of us have our private history that is formed against our collective backgrounds, in a sense that personal and collective never merge into something else but rather pile upon each other creating the different layers of our identities, and Amin seems to know that. He makes it clear that by telling his story to his friend he hopes to make amends with his past, forgive himself for the lies he had to tell, and try to move on. This is precisely what makes Flee so compelling; the film, a hybrid between animation and historical footage, never shies away from presenting itself as a film, as an attempt at connecting the dots of Amin’s memory and creating a more coherent narrative out of them.

In Flee, memories are never questioned but honestly portrayed as a recollection that already presupposes an interpretation of the described events by the one who is telling them, so that some sense could be made from senseless acts of violence. On this ground, it is no wonder why cinema, a way of telling stories born out of new technology of the time, became art because of its obsession with the past. Films are a way to soothe our anxieties about the future. Thus perhaps via cinema we could finally write the history of those often left at the margins of the history that is taught in school. Maybe, just maybe, motion pictures could finally offer a greatly needed alternative history of the last century; one like Deleuze and Guattari envisioned: “History is always written from the sedentary point of view and in the name of a unitary State apparatus, at least a possible one, even when the topic is nomads. What is lacking is a Nomadology, the opposite of a history.” So, who is to say if films like Flee are a first step in this direction?