Flee (2021)

Jonas Poher Rasmussen | 1hr 30min

There is something lost in the reconstruction of old memories that can be difficult to put your finger on, but in Flee, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary about the escape of his friend, Amin, from Afghanistan as a young man, it is often what is left missing that evokes more powerful emotions than anything else. The interviews that Rasmussen conducts often look more like therapy sessions, as he asks Amin to lay down and close his eyes to try and piece together the sequence of events that, in the years since, have tangled around each other in threads of confusion, grief, and regret.

The two provide their own live-recorded voices in these scenes, speaking authentically as friends with years of history behind them, though like every other character in this film they are animated, purposefully concealing Amin’s identity. It is this persistent dedication to a hand-drawn style that lets the few glimpses of live-action archival footage hit particularly hard, momentarily lifting us beyond one man’s perspective to ground this piece in the raw, unfiltered reality of 1990s Afghanistan.

Interviews framed almost like therapy sessions between Rasmussen and Amin.

There is an inherent clash between animations and documentaries in their distinctly divergent approaches to depicting truth on film, and as such there is good reason that few filmmakers have attempted to combine the two. Waltz With Bashir is the big one in this niche genre, within which documentarian Ari Folman attempted to recover lost memories from his time fighting for the Israeli Defence Force in the Lebanon War, and in similarly blending both subjective and objective understandings of the past, Rasmussen manages a comparably fluid examination of historical truth.

Contained within Amin’s story are smaller narratives, some passed onto him through second-hand sources, some he has tried to suppress, and others which he fabricated for the purpose of disguising his identity as a refugee. It is in these moments that the film’s dominant graphic-novel style of animation seeps away, and is replaced by rough black-and-white sketches, swirling around as faceless figures and abstract formations that seem to come from a dark, traumatised subconscious. As the frames flip by at a lower, jittery rate and strokes of paint run across the screen, Rasmussen creates a visual evocation of an unsettled psychological state that could never be captured through live-action footage alone, sending us to those same dark places that Amin is verbally recalling.

Formally experimental documentary filmmaking with the two styles of animation distinguishing between which parts of Amin’s memories we are accessing.

As emotionally caught up in his past as Amin often is, we also find a clear-minded perspective in his storytelling when it comes to the process of discovering his own sexuality. Being queer in 90s Kabul was not just considered sinful, but was not spoken of at all, and when he was running for his life there was barely time to consider how his sexual attractions fit into any broader social context. In the present day though, Amin lives openly as a gay man, and even as he recognises the disadvantage that he was put at growing up, he also possesses the ability now to look back and laugh with affection at his younger self’s confusions.

Within the present day, Rasmussen chooses to pick out a very specific section of Amin’s life to follow alongside his personal recounts, eavesdropping on conversations with his partner about house hunting. Their petty squabbles and shared joys become part of our understanding around who Amin has become today, but even more significantly they become the basis of direct narrative parallels between his past and present. Where he was once forced to move as a necessity of survival, now it is entirely his own choice, giving him the sort of power over his future that he once considered unimaginable. Not all memories are depicted as being equal in Flee, though in Rasmussen’s efforts to piece them together through animated reconstructions, we gradually begin to see Amin as a complex accumulation of his stories in all their varying degrees of subjectivity.

A quiet but significant story being told in the present day around the interviews, running with the motif of moving between locations.

Flee is currently playing in theatres.

24 City (2008)

Jia Zhangke | 1hr 52min

Jia Zhangke almost completely crosses the boundary from neorealism into real life with 24 City, and then stops just before he commits entirely. For all intents and purposes, this is still indeed a documentary, as he draws on authentic stories and voices from those who once worked and lived at Factory 420, an airplane engine manufacturing facility that was also essentially its own self-contained city. But sprinkled in among his real subjects are actors playing scripted parts, which have been adapted and condensed from over 130 authentic interviews. It isn’t easy to tell who or what is completely real, but this experimental blend suggests a shift away from objectivity of the past, and into an uncertain, postmodern future, where luxurious, high-rise apartments displace tight-knit working communities.

Authentic interviews mixed in with scripted, blurring boundaries of what constitutes absolute truth.

Our proclivity to assume that much of what we hear is true is challenged by Jia’s clearly staged interludes, such as one security guard wandering around the abandoned premises and finding an exam registration paper of an earlier interview subject. These scenes are no less poignant for their lack of verisimilitude, as they rather feel like extensions of the stories that have already been presented. And besides, beyond all of these individual perspectives, the truth of the main narrative – the destruction of an entire lifestyle and city – is evident simply in the changes we witness in Jia’s shooting location. 

Clouds of dust form beneath collapsing structures, labourers who might have worked at this factory had they been born a generation earlier pull it apart, and yet Jia never stops finding the poetry in this derelict architecture. After we spend time wandering around the piles of rubble, wooden planks, and crumbling walls, Jia ruptures the peace with a stone smashing through a window. Several more then follow, this act of violence from unseen perpetrators sounding like rain coming to wash this historical artefact away.

Jia doesn’t skimp on the visuals even with this foray into documentary filmmaking.

Meanwhile, in recurring shots of the factory’s entrance gradually transformation over time, Jia grounds the form of 24 City in something identifiable from the public’s perspective. Though this development will have its own major impact on the future of Chengdu, it is still just a product of a larger culture moving in the same direction. As our final interview subject, a child of workers from Factory 420, breaks down in tears about her family’s displacement, she reveals that it has only driven her to pursue one important goal – to own a bit of the apartment block that will replace the factory. 

 “The thing I want most now is to make a lot of money. Lots and lots of money. I want to buy an apartment in 24 City for my parents.” 

No matter how much China moves forward with the times, there will always be people mourning something that was lost in the past. For younger generations, it may be their parents’ prospects, or perhaps their own. For Jia, it is tied to the land itself – something tangible that his ancestors proudly built, and yet which is now razed to the ground in the name of progress.

Solid form in these recurring shots of the factory’s transformation.

24 City is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Mubi.