P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958) is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
Movies on War 2021: Don’t get me wrong. If you’re looking for a fight, this might not be for you. It might seem to be about war but it’s really all about peace, and a very special festival vibe, as I was happy to discover myself many moons ago now. When exactly, I cannot say: Before the pandemic – before time itself caught a dose of Long Covid. The memory of Elverum ‘at war’ nevertheless lingers in the mind like a wonderful dream.
There’s something surreal, to say the least, about reel upon reel of blazing guns and scorched earth filmmaking rocking the cinema walls of this peaceful little Norwegian town, as it hunkers down for another gloomy winter. All film festivals are great, we regulars know, because we get to hang out and share our joy – or disgust – or boredom – and pick apart what we’ve seen with our fellow viewers. Movies on War has the peculiar virtue of giving that conversation a massive kickstart. You’re going to need a proper debriefing, soldier! This is war, goddammit!
Movies on war may tell us much about war, but especially the exit plan, the path to a genuine peace. They are political in the best way, not in the sense of the earnest documentary championing a suitably worthy cause, but films straight from the one true, beating heart of politics: The conflict and, not least, the violence. It may not be pretty but, fictional or otherwise, it’s always real and, at its best, a revelation.
Some of the worst acts of violence are subtle and insidious, more or less hidden from sight. From soulless corridor to holding-pen, ‘They’ draw out the lifeblood of their victims like a carelessly vindictive, homicidal leech. Governments are among the worst offenders and, as it happens, there are few better accounts and critiques of their routine abominations than some of the films coming soon to a Movies on War theatre near you, Kaouther Ben Hania’s remarkable parable of dehumanising commodification, The Man Who Sold His Skin, from 2020, or this year’s Flugt (Flee), directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen.
With a sense of piercing fidelity to his experience, this extraordinary animated documentary follows the heart-wrenching story of Amin and, not least, the story of its telling, including the myriad obstacles, scars and complications that can get in the way. The fear and heartache in the telling is a striking testimony to the violence and its enduring and unendurable effects. This is a life traumatised and unravelled in complex, legalistic as well as psychological ways, by every hazard along those treacherous pathways grudgingly afforded the refugee. It’s a meanspirited institutional landscape made in the name of security, in the name of tunnel-vision, finders-keepers nationhood. This he must negotiate and still manage to keep body and soul – and the body and soul of his loved ones – together.
The story (spoiler alert!) is ultimately an uplifting one, a tale of remarkable resilience and survival – even triumph. A gay man, whose family had been forced to flee war-torn Afghanistan in the 1980s, finds his way –in the end – to a kind of peace and fulfilment. This in no way dilutes the wretchedness of the miseries inflicted on him and his family. The mostly animated film acquaints us with those with startling perspicacity. The scars left by an abusive system live on forever in the chronic anxiety, and the extraordinary demands Amin places on himself to justify and atone for the sacrifices of others.
A little in the manner of Ari Folman’s ground-breaking Waltz with Bashir, from 2008, Flugt uses animation to draw us deep into the existential nightmare of the protagonist. We share his fear, his vulnerability, his discovery of reserves of strength and love he never dared to take for granted, and, finally, his enduring, haunting anxieties. There’s something paradoxical about animation in this regard.
It’s as though the very figurative quality of the drawn character, twice removed from any embodied individual, creates a kind of tabula rasa for our powers of empathy. This is true of both these films, as well as another powerful animated work also showing in Elverum, Zabou Breitman and Elea Gobbe-Mevellac’s The Swallows of Kabul, from 2019. They all tap an extraordinary capacity for identification with their stylised protagonists, as though their essential emotional presence is inversely related to the crude emotional register of the ‘puppet figure’ as visual form.
However it works, Flugt is a masterpiece of creative imagination and, most importantly, it shines a vital searchlight of understanding into the latest indignities inflicted – in our name – on those perennially and systematically marginalised by a world order made in our craven image. This is something sorely needed by a world typically too weary and inward-looking to care.
If you haven’t seen it yet, then don’t miss this latest chance at Movies on War! If you have, then why not see it again – and more besides? Either way, do me a favour: ‘Save me the aisle seat!’