In 2010, Yousif Al-Islam, a Palestinian-American man, decided to flee Egypt for Europe, joining hundreds of other desperate people. But he didn’t plan on leaving, and his adult life was almost cut short when the Egyptian government caught him trying to cross into the United States illegally.
Flee, an animated documentary by Joshua Zeman, tracked Al-Islam’s journey to America, his first time in the country — from the London transit station where he first boarded a train with hopes of hopping a lorry bound for Germany, to his then-unfamiliar neighborhood in New York. One of the best things about the film is that it combines breathtakingly evocative scenes of New York with more traditional animation, so that Al-Islam’s journey seems like a revelation: a whirlwind of colorful landscapes, breathtaking sunset, whistle-stop flights, and fast food joints.
But Flee never relies on 3-D animation to fill in its wide-open spaces, moving at a flash and rolling when needed. The animated images hint at how people literally run from war and terror, and the movie’s overall tone is wise — the art reflects the audience’s hope that Al-Islam can find a better life in the country that, to his dismay, he was never allowed to become a citizen of.
The film’s entry into the wild doesn’t begin smoothly, with an interview in which Al-Islam, left homeless, is asked how he will pay a $16,000 bribe to Egypt’s military that would help him leave. The interviews, by Zeman and Daniele Sterra, are oddly unconnected: They open in New York, return to London, then we switch over to Egypt, then back to New York. The entire chain takes place on screen with no dialogue — it’s as if the people are just waiting for the interview to finish and the bad news to break, but Zeman and Sterra need some deft editing to bridge these gaps.