It’s not unusual for a film to be nominated in multiple categories at the Oscars — a big movie like, say, Dune is up for 10 awards this year, ranging from Best Picture to a slew of technical categories (how many or how much of those likely wins we’ll actually get to watch during the broadcast, however, remains to be seen). It’s a hell of a lot rarer for something to get nominated in a trio of disparate major categories like Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary and Best International Feature. Or, for that matter, rightfully deserve to win all three of those slots.
“Deserve,” as a wise man once said in a far different Oscar-winning movie, has nothing to do with it. But in a perfect world, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee would walk away next weekend with multiple statues to its name and, hopefully, the potential to reach a far bigger audience than it already has. It is nothing if not a unicorn: An extraordinary portrait of a childhood friend from Afghanistan who recounts his story to the Danish filmmaker via long, winding interviews conducted over a four-year period — and whose therapy-like backstories are rendered via animation, all the better to protect the subject’s identity — the film made an instant impact after premiering at Sundance in 2021. Neon, the boutique distributor who previously helped usher Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite into multiple Oscar victories, picked up the film and, along with its partner Participant, began platform-releasing it in early December. It graced numerous best-of lists (ours included) and was recognized by a host of critics’ groups. The question wasn’t whether it would get recognized by the Academy so much as where it was likely to end up in terms of contention. The animation section was almost assuredly a lock. The competition in Best Documentary was a little stiffer. Denmark had put the film forward as its Best International Feature submission, but the thinking behind what gets picked and what gets omitted for the final round in this particular category has always been on par with the Riddle of the Sphinx.
But when the 2022 Oscar nominations were announced this past February, Flee showed up in all three sections — and while it will still be considered a vital, urgent, masterful work of art even if it leaves the Dolby Theatre empty-handed on Sunday, there’s a case to be made for why it should stroll away with every one of those statues.
Let’s start with Best Animated Feature, a relatively new category (the first award was handed out in 2002) and one that’s long been dominated by heavy corporate hitters: your Disneys, your Pixars, your Dreamworks. That said, entries from outside of the U.S. aren’t atypical, especially if the names Ghibli, Aardman or Cartoon Saloon are present in the credits. And while the majority of nominees have tended toward bigger, more family-friendly fare as a default mode, a complex work like 2007’s Persepolis — Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her own autobiographical comic, co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud — do manage to sneak in. Flee closely resembles that earlier work in a number of ways, from its personal, almost diaristic sense of reportage from a country where repression is the norm to the sketch-like simplicity of the animation’s style. It looks and feels more like a Drawn & Quarterly graphic novel come to life than a Disney toon.
But unlike most of the Academy-anointed contenders, Flee is a film that uses its format in a way that reflects both a narrative necessity and an opportunity. Wanting to protect the identity of the subject and his family, who are spread throughout Europe — the man telling his life story onscreen is referred to as “Amin” — Rasmussen decided to animate the story as a way of making his friend feel safe enough to speak his truth. Yet the aesthetic qualities that the team of Danish animators and French colorists bring to Amin’s tale of being forced to leave his home in Kabul in 1989, when civil war raged throughout the country and the Mujahideen began recruiting young men, enhance the film in a variety of different ways. An early sequence involving running away from captors takes on a blurry, hastily rendered quality; when Amin later recounts a barely remembered attempt to leave Russia, where he and his family had been forced to relocate under duress, the screen fills with dark, pulsing gray smears that occasionally let hellish reds peek through. It’s a completely expressive way of sifting through Amin’s painful memories, and rather than giving Flee a sense of distance, it somehow makes this confessional piece feel more intimate. It’s almost as if the sometimes childlike drawing style is reflecting and refracting his traumatic past through the prism of the scared, confused youngster he once was.
And this true story of one immigrant’s journey — as a political exile, as a stranger in a several strange lands, as a refugee learning to live and assimilate in Europe — doubles as a testament to a situation that remains frighteningly common throughout the world. Flee is as much a documentary about the often nightmarish experience that Amin was forced to go through as it is his attempt to reckon with what happened years after the fact. Yet it’s also a chronicle of a worldwide phenomenon, and while it is very much Amin’s tale, there are undoubtedly millions more like his. Creative masterstroke or not, the animation is ultimately at the service of nonfiction filmmaking even as it blurs the lines (literally, in some scenes) between his personal story and the larger history lessons about war, Russian corruption, human trafficking, and the mass displacement of entire populations. Like all great documentaries, Rasmussen’s movie is about more than one thing; the way he’s able to filter all of these concepts through the perspective of a single, harrowing narrative is, frankly, astounding. Neither the big picture nor the far more personal one gets short shrift here.
So while the Best Documentary Feature category is filled with extremely tough competition — notably Summer of Soul, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s absolute banger of a look back at the Harlem Cultural Festival concerts, and Stanley Nelson’s portrait of prison riot/sociopolitical tragedy Attica — it would be an incredible statement to reward Flee with this honor as well. We’re thankfully past the point where documentaries are considered the cinematic equivalent of steamed broccoli, where the phrase itself is synonymous with nothing more than just-the-verité-ma’am journalism or Dateline-with-benefits formulae. Rasmussen’s movie nonetheless pushes the boundaries of what we recognize as a certain form of nonfiction storytelling, and makes the form itself all the better for it. To acknowledge Flee for this, as well as its use of animation as a way of connecting history and the human who are caught up in its tides, is to encourage both artists and viewers to reconsider not just what stories get told but how they’re told.
Which brings us to Best International Feature, and what is the hardest of the three categories to imagine Flee walking away with a victory. It is still impossible to believe that the three-hour Japanese drama that so many of us ride-or-die film lovers deemed the best picture of 2021 — Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s brilliant, devastating, exhilarating Drive My Car — might also be the Academy’s choice for Best Picture. It’s also hard at this stage to see his masterpiece beating Jane Campion’s equally deserving The Power of the Dog for that prize, surprise crossover hit or not. Voters will likely feel more comfortable giving it this award, assuming that Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier’s equally deserving, equally popular The Worst Person in the World does not get a last-minute bump before ballots are turned in. (The fact that the movie’s lead, Renate Reinsve, will not be among the names mentioned for the Best Actress award on Sunday is indeed a crime, but that’s a whole other article.) The bad news is that this places Flee in a potential third-place slot. The good news is that no matter who walks up the podium when that envelope is opened, we win as well. Every category should be so lucky to have such strong, worthy contenders.
And yet … if you consider that fact that movies are “machines of empathy,” to quote the late Roger Ebert — and that international cinema in particular doubles as a sort of passport that collapses the boundaries between the similar and the “other” — then Flee arguably stands animated head and shoulders above its peers here as well. It’s a coming-of-age story about life during wartime, at a moment when we’re watching an imperialist power brutally, senselessly invade a neighboring country. It’s a coming-out story, with Amin finally able to both open up and embrace his sexuality, at a moment when Texas is waging its own war against trans kids and Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill wants to turn back the clock on LGBTQ rights. It’s a coming-clean story, in which a person who’s suffered an incredible, extended period of trauma finally emerges on the other side and can begin the long process of healing, at a point when so many of us feel spiritually battered, physically isolated, and existentially scared for the future of our nations and our world. It’s representing its country of origin while reminding us that we’re all on this Earth together. Amin, c’est moi. Should the Academy voters deem it fit to hand Rasmussen’s beautiful story this award as well, it would be a fitting way to recognize that Flee is a work that feels both international and universal — both timely and, as with all great art, timeless.