by Gavin Spoors
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Animated-documentary Flee has made Oscar history by scoring nominations across three particular
categories: animated feature, documentary feature and international feature. In 2020, Honeyland
nabbed nominations for documentary feature and international feature, and back in 2008 the
animated documentary Waltz with Bashir earned an international feature nomination, but no
animated documentary has come close to the success of Flee.
This extraordinary real-life story centers on Amin (not his real name), a gay Afghan man who reveals
his secretive past escaping war-torn Kabul during the Afghan War. Using animation to mask Amin’s
identity, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen gives Amin the space to confront his past through a series
of interviews. It’s an immensely powerful piece of cinema about being a queer refugee but also
about confronting the past to move forward. Flee doesn’t just deserve each nomination but
deserves to win in each category.
The decision to animate Amin’s story serves both real-world issues and the film’s narrative. Those
real-life implications are obviously most important, with the animation protecting Amin’s identity
and giving him a safe method of telling his story. Over the course of the film, we see Amin slowly
open up and somewhat become more comfortable with sharing his past for the first time with
Rasmussen. The animation begins with a delightful graphic novel style, but the art direction itself
changes throughout Flee to better represent the current setting and mood. Amin’s younger years in
Kabul are colourful and stylised, and the more traumatic moments are illustrated with stark black
and white charcoal drawings. It shows off the skills of the animators and wider crew, but crucially it’s
all in service of the story.
What also makes Flee standout is how the behind-the-scenes story creeps its way into Amin’s
narrative. Amin and Rasmussen are real-life friends who met as teenagers when Amin arrived in
Denmark as a refugee. Rasmussen had wanted to tell Amin’s story for years but patiently waited
until Amin was comfortable in doing so. An animated version of Rasmussen appears frequently
throughout the film, interviewing Amin and having open conversations with him. A particular
highlight is when Amin and Rasmussen are talking in a flat, drinking and opening up to each other.
There’s a lot of ethical debates about directors inserting themselves into documentary narratives but
here it adds to the story. Amin is able to confront his past by talking to his close friend, and in effect
move forward in life with his fiancé Kasper. The relationship between director and subject is key to
the thematic elements and for the story to move forward.
To be nominated for three distinct Academy Awards is a testament to how Flee is a powerful piece of
cinema. If anything, it’s a disservice that it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. It is rare for animated
and international films to garner nominations for the top prize, and no documentary has ever been
nominated in that category. If Flee takes home all three awards on the big night, it’ll help audiences
and academy voters give animated, international and documentary features the respect they