Animation Analysis: Flee

Flee remains such an exceptional film not just for its brilliant direction and stunning visuals but because of the humanity and compassion that lies in the immense heart of the work. Premiering at the Sundance film festival in February 2021, Flee tells the story of an anonymous man, given the pseudonym Amin Nawabi, as he tells his story of fleeing Afghanistan when he was young. The film, directed and co-written by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, has earned widespread critical acclaim, an Annie award for Best Independent Feature, and has become the first film in Academy Award History to receive simultaneous nominations in the Best Animated Feature, Best International Feature Film, and Best Documentary Feature categories. Here, I want to briefly discuss Flee, how it conveys its story of self-discovery so well, and why I think you should watch this incredible film.

As mentioned, Flee follows Amin Nawabi as he tells his life story— from his earliest memories with his family in Afghanistan, his escape from his home country, to his treacherous life as a refugee— through several interviews recorded over a few years. The interview format of the documentary helps give the narrative a humanistic quality— persistently reminding the audience in a personable way that these are real people. The audience’s awareness of that reality works doubly on behalf of the filmmakers: it allows them to both heighten the suspense of the harrowing events; and underscores the desperate cling to hope that leads these people on this journey. Additionally, it allows the filmmakers to explore not just Amin’s past but how his past affects his current life.

At first glance, the film’s pacing may seem impressionistic, but I think it has a conversational rhythm. The story doesn’t put you in the driver’s seat so much as it feels like you two are having a long talk on the couch about your lives. One-sided talking, granted. Although, I would not blame you if you shouted at the screen while watching the film (as I did) because it does get very stressful (no spoilers, but this is a boat hate account now). However, Flee accomplishes the balancing act of knowing when to exhibit the anxieties and horrors of Amin’s escape and when to show quiet moments, like him and his husband going house hunting. Indeed, this balance gives way to the silent acceptance that those two things exist in emotional simultaneity— how Amin no longer lives through that experience, but also how that experience is something he will never live without. Through his ruminations on his life, we learn of both Amin’s past and his potential welcoming of a better future.

Furthermore, the sound design enhances the intimacy of the film. The sound design in the English dub (if you want to live like that) is certainly well done— but the original dub has some of the best audio engineering I’ve heard in a while– to such an extent that it feels strange to highlight it. So much of audio design’s magic comes from how innocuous it makes itself while further immersing you into the world of the film. Yet, much of the charm of the film’s audio design also comes from how organic the scenes feel, particularly scenes taking place in the modern day. Granted, some of this does come from the clever use of candidate conversations making up the film’s more modern scenes— like some it is just a microphone on the table making me think “it’s like I’m really there.” But, the audio-scape of the film consistently exhibits such lived and textured quality throughout, whether it’s the harshness of the wind blowing during the night or the faint pleasantness of a pop song playing in the other room while a conversation occurs. Furthermore, I want to praise Uno Helmersson’s excellent score for the film; the soundtrack works incredibly well at establishing the film’s atmosphere. As well, although certain songs only work in service to the context of the film (have fun playing “Running Hiding” or “They Are Not Well” next time you’re on Aux), I’ve been coming back to tracks like “Sister Telling Stories” and especially “Fleeing Kabal” since I first heard them. The soundtrack, and indeed the sound design entirely, elevates the film by guiding the audience to a clear and impactful emotional view of the experience of the narrative.

Moreover, the animation of Flee establishes the film’s maturity while punctuating its emotionality. The animation ranges in style throughout the film, utilizing charcoal, oil paints, rotoscoping, and sparse 3D to accent its primary digital 2D hand-drawn style. Compared to other current 2D animated films (all of which are not American, lol), the animation of Flee may seem choppy— and deliberately so. As previously mentioned, the filmmakers persistently underscore the film’s humanity; they do so explicitly through a deliberately rough approach to 2D animation by incorporating their personal touches into the foundation of the work. However, they also establish a clear contrast between the rougher, low frame rate animation and the meticulous illustration work and phenomenal digital compositing; invoking the look of contemporary graphic novels also intended for mature audiences, ensuring that their depiction of events remains stylized but never desensitized. Moreover, I found the low-frame animation gave the film an idiosyncratic edge over others, allowing the animators to focus on expressiveness and quality character animation while still working with high fidelity designs and environments. Indeed, the limitations of the primary style also further accentuate the chaos the looser styles occasionally used.

Additionally, while the list of studios who had a part in the making and distribution of the film looks like nutritional facts, the film’s team remained remarkably small: composed mainly of just ten animators and a supplementary studio in France working on coloring. It speaks to the skill of animators and filmmakers that they completed such a film despite these limitations. Flee remains a resonant, relevant, and human film more than deserving of its widespread acclaim and is a must-watch film.

Flee is available on Hulu for streaming. This isn’t an ad. I just like this movie.

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