REVIEW: Flee/Captains of Zaatari (Sundance 2021)
Two documentaries that capture different stages in the journey of being a refugee and which blur the lines between documentary, drama and animation.
Flee is about an Afghan refugee in Denmark, through the lens of a close friend who discovers his backstory as we do. Captains of Zaatari is about two Syrian refugees at a camp in Jordan, who hope that football will be their way out of their circumstances.
Flee is not the first animated documentary, docudrama or biopic – with Tower (2016), Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Persepolis (2007) being excellent examples. It has the practical purpose of protecting the identities of those involved, but also really works as a way of conveying frequently traumatic memories. The animation in Flee reflects the mind of Amin, who is telling his friend (director Jonas Poher Rasmussen) his story, because the earlier the memories (such as the ones involving his father), the hazier the outlines.
We learn of Amin’s early life in Kabul, with his siblings and mother. His life is recognisable and relatable to any child of the 80s – he listens to A-ha on his walkman, has posters of Chuck Norris on his walls and develops his first crush – on Jean-Claude Van-Damme. Despite this normalcy and levity, his father has been imprisoned and then goes missing entirely. His older brother will soon be forcibly recruited into the army and it is against this backdrop that the family decide to flee. One of the most haunting shots is of the empty house after the family have made the difficult decision to leave.
They fly to Moscow and are met by the eldest brother of the family, who resides in Sweden, where he is trying to scrape together the money to traffic them out. Eventually Amin’s two elder sisters are smuggled out in a freight container, in which they nearly die. The animation is occasionally interspersed with news footage, reminding us of the reality of everything we are seeing. Amin, his older brother and mother make an attempt to get out on a boat, which is one of the most heart-wrenching segments – especially when a Norwegian cruise ship looks down on them, with tourists’ cameras clicking and flashing.
Amin’s backstory is intercut with his current life in Copenhagen, as a successful and in-demand academic who frequently travels to the US and other countries for work. However, his relationship is suffering due to the fact that he hasn’t fully reckoned with his past and healed from the trauma. He understandably can’t let go of the paranoia that this could all be taken away at any moment and also feels he has to make his life worthy of what he and his family went through to get there. Seeing what the family have to endure and risk at the hands of traffickers, just to frequently be set back and have to start all over again is horribly tense.
Captains of Zaatari focuses on two young Syrian refugees – Fawzi and Mahmoud – in a camp in Jordan, who are best friends. ‘Camp’ doesn’t adequately convey the size and complexity of this established community, where many children have spent their whole lives. They bond over girls, learning English, complaining about school and most of all – football. They get the opportunity to travel to Qatar to compete in a tournament where there will be scouts who could potentially change their lives.
The section of the documentary set in Qatar is the highlight – Fawzi and Mahmoud see and experience a place and a life that is like their wildest dreams made solid. The highs and lows of the matches themselves, that they believe their entire fate rests on, will put a whole new spin on watching football, especially if it’s not something you’re usually bothered about. In one pivotal match, the film cuts to the reactions of their families and friends in the camp, who have managed to huddle around one small television to watch, filled with excitement and emotion.
The parts of the documentary that really stand out are also the parts that are perhaps questionable, once you start thinking about them, after you’ve finished watching. The late night conversations that Fawzi and Mahmoud have at the camp, where they discuss their hopes and aspirations feel very much like watching two good actors in a drama. This leads one to start to started thinking of it more as “scripted reality” than a straight fly-on-the-wall documentary. Docudramas are their own complex thing (such as Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets from last year’s Sundance) and can be amazing. But when audiences start to feel hoodwinked, problems can arise. It also leads to questions of how complicit the boys were and aware of the ‘construction’ of the film, because there are definitely points that do not feel like the director (Ali El Arabi) has just stumbled across a natural conversation which is unfolding. The filmmaker seems to have a narrative he has built around these boys and created ‘characters’ out of their real personalities, but this means that many lines are blurred and you start to wonder what is the truth at the heart of it all.
Despite this, it’s hard not warm to Fawzi and Mahmoud as you follow their trials and tribulations with eager interest. Of course, you are rooting for them and willing them on and the filmmaker doesn’t go so far as to give them a typical Hollywood ending. Their reality, which we see over the course of some years, is not going to be as uplifting as an episode of Ted Lasso. It makes for a gripping documentary, but one that might leave you feeling a little unsure about the filmmaking techniques involved, once you start to think about it.
Flee and Captains of Zaatari are two documentaries that will captivate you from start to finish. They both give a valuable insight into people and places that we may be less familiar with (especially in recent years, when it is easy to have become wrapped up in events closer to home) and both do so in unusual ways, beyond the usual straight-forward documentary format.