Synopsis: Animated film that recounts the life story of an Afghani refugee in his own words. (Streaming on Amazon Prime as of 3-10-22)
Are you familiar with Aesop’s fables? You know, like the story of the ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper spends the summer dancing and fiddling whilst the ant industriously gathers and stores food. When the grasshopper goes to the ant in the winter, begging for food, the ant is like: Well, well. Not so dancey & fiddly now, are we? The moral of the story is: Don’t ask an ant for help.
So, Aesop’s fables, with their characters, are supposed to teach life lessons such as ‘work hard,’ ‘be on your guard,’ and ‘don’t challenge a tortoise to a foot race–even if you are a bunno. This is all well and good, but what if History intervenes? I thought about this watching Flee, an animated documentary.
Amin (a pseudonym) grows up in Kabul, Afghanistan in the late 80’s/early 90’s. He has a stable household: a mother and father, two brothers and two sisters. They all have enough to eat and the children have time to play outdoors. Amin hero worships the Belgian action star Jean Claude Van Damme, runs around in his sisters’ dresses, and plays volleyball with his brother.
Amin relates his life’s story to the filmmaker, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, whom he first met in high school. The voice we hear, speaking in his native Dari (sometimes called Persian or Farsi), is the refugee, “Amin.” The animation, a realistic graphic novel style, preserves Amin’s anonymity.
Afghanistan has had a rough time over the years. The mountainous country gives as good as it gets, and the people have weathered a lot in a dry and rugged landscape. But Nature isn’t as much of a problem as the military campaigns that have run roughshod over the civilians, especially relentless since the 1970’s. One of the most frequent questions about Afghanistan in online searches is “Was Afghanistan ever peaceful?” Suffice to say that you would have better survival and personal happiness prospects if you were a snow leopard born in the country’s Hindu Kush region of the Himalayas rather than a person in Afghanistan.
When the Soviet Union was pulling out of Afghanistan in 1989, large scale civil war erupted, and people were desperate to escape the warfare; including Amin’s family. They got travel visas to the only place that they could: the Soviet Union. Desperate indeed.
Aesop knew about desperation, or some desperate fish anyway. He told a fable of live fish that were thrown into a frying pan full of hot oil. (Sounds egregiously cruel –lobsters can surely relate.) One of the fish enjoins the other fish to jump out. And they do. They land into firey coals. The storyteller makes a point of noting that the other fish were cursing the fish’s advice. The story found its way through history and begat the proverb: from the frying pan into the fire. In other words: Don’t move to Russia.
The family tries to eke out a living in Moscow. Their stress is compounded because the family has been split up. Mostly, they stay in their apartment to avoid scrutiny. Amin spends hours watching telenovelas, losing himself in melodrama. I don’t know if the shows were dubbed over with Russian or in Spanish. It can get confusing; my favorite telenovelas are from Turkey, so all the people are running around Istanbul speaking Spanish. Anyway…
Months go by and Amin and his brother can’t resist slipping outside to gather for the grand opening of the first McDonald’s in Russia (Jan., 1990). Thousands gathered in Moscow’s Pushkin Square lining up to sample Western fast food. Based on the animated footage in Flee, it doesn’t look like the Mcdonald’s scary clown, Ronald, was able to get a visa, because instead there were scary big trolls gathered in front of the restaurant by the various dignitaries. Staffers were trained to smile at customers, something so unfamiliar to Russians that they were confounded by the sight.
Amin and his brother don’t get to have any fast food because they are harassed by the police. This has happened to their mother on another occasion when she had to venture out. Apparently, the police academies skip ethics training since the populace doesn’t have civil liberties. This leaves more time to teach extortion techniques. Civilians seem to be routinely subjected to stops in which the encounter is ended when the person hands over money or, in the event a person doesn’t have cash on them, assaulted. And believe it or not, officers forgo sobriety and get sloshed on vodka while on duty.
Amin recounts their misery matter-of-factly. Even worse are the human traffickers whom he calls psychopaths. The animation shows scowling men, bodies tense with the promise of violence to their customers. No jobs for them at McDonald’s.
Back and forth Amin and various family members go, from the frying pan into the fire. Terrified, they are treated like human cargo on boats and trucks and along snowy border paths. At one juncture, Amin is in a rickety boat at sea. The refugees on board desperately bail water out of the vessel. Hallelujah! A European cruise ship is in sight. Before long, the little boat bobs next to the ship. Passengers appear at the railings, gawping and taking pictures of the refugees. Won’t this be an exciting story! Amin, still a kid, says he couldn’t feel anything but shame that this was his predicament; that fate had taken their dignity and replaced it with scrabbling to survive from moment to moment.
Your heart aches for Amin and all the other refugees, but nothing gruesome is actually depicted and much of the film consists of Amin’s details of happiness with his Danish boyfriend, Kaspar. So, I wouldn’t write this movie off for being too much to watch. But it’s probably not a good idea to watch Flee right after a bad day.
This brings me to my last Aesop’s fable. I should probably tell you that Aesop’s canon includes lots of stories that are not actually from him but got picked up through the centuries. But here goes the last story, The Woodcutter and the Trees …
A woodcutter is working their way through a grove of trees. The trees implore Zeus to save them. The deity says they only have themselves to blame since the ax handles are made of wood. Talk about blaming the victim! This is like telling Aesop, purportedly an enslaved man in Ancient Greece, that if he didn’t want to be a slave, he shouldn’t have had a body that could labor.
Aesop and Amin and countless other people have been caught in History’s vice because they were born in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Maybe there should be some new fables that are disseminated. Instructive stories that include, say, a bear putting together a bugout bag in case they have to flee. They could pack granola bars, bandages and some alcohol to bribe unsavory characters along the way. Of course, bears are massive predators so they could probably just swipe problematic people aside. That brings to mind: Maybe bring some bear spray in the bag. You probably won’t encounter any bears if you are hopscotching across borders, but you might need it to repel some human beasts.