Two films examine the plight of migrants, the first about seeking asylum, the second about the danger of going missing or getting killed.
Ours is an age of migrants, those martyred by the legal fictions we call borders. Two recent films explore this persistent, troubling experience.
Flee is from a very small genre, that of an animated documentary for adults. It presents the true account of an Afghan man, named Amin for the purposes of the film, whose family escaped from their war-torn country in the 1990s, ending up in Russia, where discrimination and poverty followed them. Since they were officially stateless, getting out of Russia was extremely difficult. We are shown their bitter ordeals, including being returned to Russia after trying to make it by ship to Finland. Always present was the risk of violence and exploitation.
Amin finally made it to Denmark as an unaccompanied minor with refugee status. But in order to achieve that status, he had to make up a story about his whole family being murdered, and from then on he didn’t dare reveal the truth for fear of being sent back. After decades, and after coming to terms with being a gay man, he needed to tell the truth in order to live honestly with his partner, and reunite if possible with his family. A good friend, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, is the man he tells all of this, and Rasmussen is the director of this film.
The animation is stark and somewhat abstract, the better to portray the constant tension and loneliness of the desperate migrant. Oddly, making the film in animated form creates an emotional experience more vivid for us than it might have been as an ordinary documentary. Flee has a very affecting, visceral impact.
Identifying Features, the film debut of Mexican director Fernanda Valadez, explores another aspect of this experience: the migrants who disappear or die. In the first scene we see a young man, in fact a teenager, approaching as if in a dream or memory, the house of his mother, and telling her that he is going to cross the border with a friend, who has an uncle in the States who will get them work. But after two months, with no word from her son, the mother, Magdalena, played with sorrowful dignity by Mercedes Hernández, is deeply troubled.
The mother of the other boy is told that her son’s body has been found, and when she travels to the place housing remains of missing migrants, she’s unable to identify the body because it’s been burned beyond recognition. Magdalena then travels to the border, and the rest of the film, using haunting and poetic imagery, at times evoking spiritual symbolism, weaves a story of desperate hope. Along the way, we discover the perils of navigating a border crossing, beset with predators who kill and steal from the powerless, along with a sinister alliance between police, military, and the cartels.
Halfway through, we meet another young man, Miguel, played by David Illescas, who has been detained trying to cross and is now deported back to Mexico, with nothing to show for his effort. Alone he travels to return to his family in his impoverished village, and along the way he encounters Magdalena. They help one another and together form a bond of grief. The film’s shattering finale asks the unanswerable: why do people become trapped in a cycle of violence and cruelty? Identifying Features refuses to look away from the horror and injustice that corrupts our future.
Both Flee and Identifying Features are available streaming and on DVD and Blu-ray.