Drawing Reality: The Life-Protecting Use of Animation in Flee

Groundbreaking animated documentary Flee (2021).
Groundbreaking animated documentary Flee (2021).

As more documentaries look for ethical creative solutions, Alicia Haddick explores how Flee filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen and others use animation to bring their stories to life.

Documentary artists use the genre to celebrate, explore, or reexamine the past, which often means walking the fine line between factual reporting on some of the most extraordinary (and dangerous) people, places and conversations, and creating what is, ultimately, a piece of entertainment.

A documentary can bring journalistic reporting to life—and to wider audiences—in a way words on a page often cannot. But the question of how to make a non-fictional story compelling on the screen, particularly when the archive simply doesn’t exist, or the subject’s identity needs protection, is a key artistic consideration.

Beyond the pivotal talking-head scenario that has defined the genre, recent films have sought a more active role in bringing non-fiction stories to life. The methods a documentary director can or should use to tell their story, and where ethical red lines exist, have dominated conversations surrounding the genre lately—as seen in the controversies over deepfake technology in Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain and re-recorded lines in Speer Goes to Hollywood.

A scene detailing the underwater route towards the thirteen trapped boys in The Rescue (2021).
A scene detailing the underwater route towards the thirteen trapped boys in The Rescue (2021).

The dramatic reenactment—where actors stand in for the subjects in recreations of pivotal scenes—is another common answer to the absence of archival footage. For The Rescue, the compelling tale of the Thai cave rescue, the team behind Free Solo struck gold: the actual divers were willing to play themselves, and thus recreated their own experiences in a tank of water in England. These scenes slotted neatly into the actual archival footage, with awards-worthy results (the film is BAFTA-nominated for Best Documentary Feature).

But in some cases, the identity of a subject is too dangerous to reveal even while they are willing to share their story. This is where animation becomes not just an artistic luxury, but a logistical necessity; an abstraction from reality that enables these stories to be brought to a wider audience.

In the process of developing the style of animation, we had three words that kind of became our mantra: authentic, subtle and organic.

—⁠Jonas Poher Rasmussen, director of Flee

Flee, one of the most acclaimed documentaries of 2021 (and newly minted as the first ever film to receive Best Documentary, Animated Film and International Film Oscar nominations), is an example of a film that uses animation out of necessity—to extraordinary creative effect. The biggest documentaries this past year can be defined by their attempts to shine a new light on our past, such as music docs The Beatles: Get Back and fellow Oscar nominee Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). By comparison, Flee is more focused on shining a light on the dangers facing refugees today, reflected through the stories of the past.

Amin, the central subject in Flee (2021), depicted in animated form.
Amin, the central subject in Flee (2021), depicted in animated form.

Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film focuses on Amin, a gender-non-conforming child forced to flee Afghanistan in the 1980s and undertake a perilous journey to Europe. Flee won high praise following its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it scooped the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in the documentary category. Yet bringing this story to life was not without its challenges. The dangers of his journey and its continued weight on Amin’s life shapes every aspect of the film, from storytelling to the creative animation used to bring it to cinematic life.

Flee is split into two sections. The first is set in Amin’s apartment where he speaks frankly about his life today, while the second is a flashback to his childhood and his journey to Denmark recreated from interviews with him. Given its focus on Amin’s journey, the topic of how his sexuality and his experience as a gay man inevitably intersects with his experience as a refugee provides a welcome perspective and prominent talking point that the film doesn’t shy away from.

Between the dangers of the journey and the uncertainty that comes with accepting one’s sexuality, animation allows the film to capture Amin’s emotions much more effectively than archival footage or live-action recreations might, with the animation replicating Amin’s mannerisms and highlighting the shifts in his voice and body as he talks.

Copenhagen-based studio Sun Creature created the animation for Flee.
Copenhagen-based studio Sun Creature created the animation for Flee.

For example, when Amin’s home is attacked early in the film, the fear and trauma associated with the attack overtake his abilities for clear and rational thought. The animation visibly falls apart as it disintegrates into a mess of lines and colors only briefly approximated as people and buildings.

“Both the animation and the narrative of Flee [are] totally driven by the testimony given by Amin. When the style of animation changes, it’s because Amin’s way of talking changes,” Rasmussen tells Letterboxd. “When he starts talking about something traumatic, the animation becomes surreal and minimalistic to support the fact that now he is not trying to describe a specific situation but an emotion he has inside.

“In the process of developing the style of animation, we had three words that kind of became our mantra: authentic, subtle and organic. We looked for references in other animated films, live-action films, paintings and photographs and put together a quite elaborate art bible of material, all the time making sure the animation would support the testimony in the core of it all.”

Stop-motion segment of The Sparks Brothers (2021) by animator Joseph Wallace.
Stop-motion segment of The Sparks Brothers (2021) by animator Joseph Wallace.

Replacing footage in a documentary with animation is nothing new. This technique goes back all the way to 1918 with the silent American propaganda film The Sinking of the Lusitania. It can also be seen in Disney’s Victory Through Air Power and even the mockumentary stylings of Aardman’s Creature Comforts, among others—the animation typically used as an entertaining embellishment of the subject being discussed. Jono McLeod’s Sundance 2022 doc My Old School wouldn’t be half as entertaining without its drawn recreations by animation studio Wild Child, who crafted an aesthetic cross between Daria and the UK television series Grange Hill.

Music documentaries are especially well partnered with animation, from Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten to Cobain: Montage of Heck. In last year’s The Sparks Brothers, director Edgar Wright deploys claymation, scrapbook animation and 2D animation to bring the anecdotes and minor asides of the group to life in a quirky style that embodies its energy and appeal.

Where Flee stands apart from these films, or even movies like the Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir, is the life-protecting necessity of the animation. The question of how to tell dangerous stories that are fraught with similar concerns to the ones faced by the Flee crew is something the genre has struggled with for many years. Ultimately, the team needed to consider whether anything that was featured could jeopardize Amin’s legal status and safety, all while creating a space where he could share his truth with confidence.

“I couldn’t create anything before I was sure it didn’t have any negative consequences for Amin and his family,” Rasmussen says. “We spent a lot of time in the beginning finding out if there could be any issues regarding Amin’s legal status because of him sharing his story, which there was not. Then it was about creating a safe space for Amin where he felt comfortable sharing his story and making sure we didn’t push him to do anything he wasn’t ready to do.”

Amin (right) and his partner Kasper, as depicted in Flee.
Amin (right) and his partner Kasper, as depicted in Flee.

In describing the process of working with Amin on a day-to-day level, Ramussen tells us, “For the first year or so of doing interviews, we had an agreement that we were just trying it out. He could always say ‘this isn’t working’ and we would stop and not make the film. I made it clear that he could always say that we should stop for the day or stop the interview if there were things he wasn’t ready to talk about. Then as we started to get funding, we sat down and had a long conversation about whether he felt this was the right time and way to share his story.”

Tackling the issue of ensuring the subject’s safety is difficult and often varies depending on the context of the film. If the subject is open to being featured without concealing their identity, this may not be an issue. In HBO’s The Legend of the Underground, the subjects of the film are open on camera about the underground LGBTQ+ scene in Nigeria and how queer people in the country are finding ways to exist despite the nation’s anti-homosexuality laws and the associated risk of persecution. While efforts are made to avoid revealing too much about their personal lives, the documentary ultimately benefits from their frank discussion of the realities of life in Nigeria today.

Sometimes, however, this is not possible, and another solution must be found. Welcome to Chechnya, the Sundance Grand Jury Winner for 2020, documents the work of volunteers assisting Chechen citizens who wish to flee Russia due to the ongoing persecution of LGBTQ+ people at the hands of police and government officials. Unlike The Legend of the Underground, those fleeing Chechnya have their identities concealed through a mix of AI and reconstructed facial animation that superimposes what is essentially a ‘new face’ onto real footage recorded by the team, allowing the subjects to appear on camera without revealing their identities.

Deepfaking vital true stories in Welcome to Chechnya (2020).
Deepfaking vital true stories in Welcome to Chechnya (2020).

Although the methods used in both Flee and Welcome to Chechnya have their advantages and disadvantages, it would be difficult to argue that either film is ineffective at portraying the realities of the situations they document. Welcome to Chechnya documents an ongoing concern for those living in Russia today, and therefore retaining much of the original footage is vital for ensuring we recognize this. In contrast, animation in Amin’s story makes the film much more personal and acts as a window into the past, while better expressing or accentuating the emotions already present in the audio of the interview clips used in the film.

Ultimately, animation defines Flee, and allows Rasmussen to deliver this experience in a way that has moved audiences since the film’s premiere. Making an effective documentary means using the tools at your disposal to bring this real story to life.

Flee writer and director Jonas Poher Rasmussen.
Flee writer and director Jonas Poher Rasmussen.

As documentaries ponder how best to bring the perspectives of overlooked or marginalized people to the screen, Flee showcases how animation can help audiences connect with stories that otherwise may be removed from their own experiences.

“I definitely think there is a bright future for animated docs,” adds Rasmussen. “One thing is that it can help subjects to share difficult stories, because they can be anonymous. Another thing is that stories told in animation can feel more universal. They are not tied to a specific face or physical human being in the same way as a regular doc, and I believe it can help broaden the perspective and open these kinds of stories up for a wider audience. To me, the act of sharing stories, especially the difficult ones, is crucial in order to understand each other better and see how alike we all fundamentally are.”


Flee’ is in US theaters now via NEON, ‘The Rescue’ is streaming on Disney+ courtesy of National Geographic, ‘The Sparks Brothers’ is streaming on Netflix, ‘Welcome to Chechnya’ is streaming on HBO Max. The 94th Academy Awards will be held on March 27, 2022.

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