The co-production film Utéct mostly won nominations at the Oscars, which won three: for best foreign film, animation and documentary. It thus became the first film that managed to score in this combination. The film was presented last January at the Sundance Film Festival. Six months later, the Taliban invaded Kabul and the film’s story began to resonate around the world.
The story is reminiscent of therapy sessions
Danish documentary filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen chose animation for the first time. The reason was prosaic: he wanted to keep the protagonist anonymous. Amin Nawabi, as his film pseudonym suggests, is the name of the director’s longtime friend, now a successful scholar who travels the world. He lives – it seems – in a satisfying and stable relationship. He and his Danish partner plan to buy a house in the countryside and his career is on the rise. Everything seems idyllic. However, Amin is also an Afghan refugee and suffers a lot of trauma during his winding journey to Denmark.
It’s about telling a story that turns kids into adults too quickly and experiences we can’t even imagine from the safety of our homes.
Rasmussen captures his painful and startling memories through conversations spanning several years. We first go to Amin’s childhood in Kabul, get to know his family and why his father disappeared. We know Amin’s house. And we gradually move on to the forced departure of the family at a time when the mujahideen are forcibly taking over the government of the country. However, the escape is not only a dangerous journey for the family from point A to point B, but above all a constant wait, insecurity, boredom and despair, whether between the walls of in a Moscow building or in an Estonian detention camp. It is in Russia that the fates of family members are divided.
Is everything Amin says true?
Amin’s story gets complicated because he disagrees with what he said when he immigrated to Denmark. However, Amin is not so much an unreliable narrator, but rather a cautious client in a therapeutic practice. Rasmussen helps him discover the shells of his identity that he has created in his new homeland over twenty-five years. The director asks Amina quite openly, we hear her voice behind the camera and sometimes we see the animated version of Rasmussen. For example, when Amin decides to start filming, or when they discuss his high school memories together.
The tension between our memory and the story we tell to our environment is at the center of the film’s attention. At the same time, this is Amin’s motivation why he entered the filming process. The relief after saying a long-hidden word is also reflected in coming out in front of the family. Surprisingly, however, this tension between individual identities does not translate significantly into the viewing experience. The “therapeutic” form of narration seems to make this impossible. Amin’s voice (we hear the real protagonist of the film) tells us what he saw, what he lived and what he feels about it now. As a result, the viewer has very little room to think about anything and enter into a dialogue with the film. Before we can breathe and reflect on what Amin’s relationship has been like for the past twenty-five years, we are told that “most people have no idea how it will affect a person. when she escapes like that. How it destroys her relationship.”
The only external inputs to the story are documentary and television (non-animated) footage, which depicts what is happening in Afghanistan or Russia. The rest is firmly tied to the hero’s statement. Either we watch him tell, or we dive into his memories and the memory of his family. The animation used is relatively conservative. It is only more abstract in moments when extreme emotions permeate the narrative or it is an event that Amin was not directly present to and only knows about by hearsay. Perhaps as the story begins and its world settles and comes to fruition before us.
In contrast, the colorful passages and the dark, torn parts stand against each other. In the happiest moments of Amin’s life, the film is relieved by cheering songs from the 80s such as Take On Me by A-ha or Joyride by Roxette. In the really dark moments, we hear depressing loops and dark dark patches moving around the image trying to escape.
What makes Escape unique?
Escape is not the first animated documentary or the first Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Two years ago, the Macedonian Honey Land about a tough beekeeper living outside civilization featured in the Best Documentary and Foreign Film nomination. This was repeated last year by the Romanian Collective, exposing the country’s corrupt healthcare system.
Most interesting, however, is the comparison with Israeli director Ari Folman’s animated film Waltz with Bashir, in which he reconstructs his own memories of the traumas of the Palestinian refugee camps. The film became the first foreign film in history in 2008 to receive an Oscar nomination in the animation category. In 2013, the Cambodian film The Missing Image, which depicts the horrors staged by the Khmer Rouge, was also successful. However, none of these films were placed in other categories like Best Foreign Film or Best Documentary.
The reason for the success of Escape lies both in the imaginary “timing” of the theme and in the form of a narrative which, above all, lets the hero speak. It is the strength and the weakness of the image. Running away with you don’t shake, it’s going too well. However, that’s not even the point. It’s about telling a story that turns kids into adults too quickly and experiences we can’t even imagine from the safety of our homes. And that’s why they often don’t really move with us – until they’re uncomfortably close.
The author works in film marketing and dramaturgy.