SLIFF Reviews: Documentary Features

Today I’m sharing the second half of my recap of the St. Louis International Film Festival, this time concentrating on three documentary features: “Flee,” “Alien on Stage,” and “Citizen Ashe.” You can find my reviews of those movies below, and can read my reviews of some of the narrative features that played at SLIFF here.

For more information on the St. Louis International Film Festival and Cinema St. Louis’s other events and programs, visit cinemastlouis.org.

Amin (right) is interviewed by friend and director Jonas Poher Rasmussen in “Flee”

FLEE

It’s fascinating when a filmmaker is able to take the documentary genre beyond what we are familiar with. It’s equally fascinating when the constantly-evolving medium of animation is used to tell stories in unexpected ways. Those two things combine in “Flee,” an animated documentary from director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. In “Flee,” Rasmussen tells the story of his friend, an Afghan refugee who goes by the name Amin in the film, who he met at the bus stop in his hometown of Copenhagen when they were both teenagers. Amin’s past prior to his arrival in Denmark was always a mystery to Rasmussen, until now, over two decades since their first meeting. In a series of interviews with Rasmussen, Amin dives into his childhood and the trauma he and his family experienced in trying to leave Afghanistan and start a new life in the West: the loss of his father, separation from his siblings and mother, the constant hounding of the police. And there are other personal things that Amin dives into in moving fashion, like his realization that he’s gay, but how there was not even a word for that in his home country growing up. Animation, as it turns out, is the perfect medium for this story, allowing for Amin and his family’s identity to remain protected, while the art styles shift to complement different portions of the story. The bulk of the film is animated in a bold, graphic 2D style, but more abstract hand-drawn animation helps illustrate some of Amin’s sketchier memories—events that are difficult for him to remember in more ways than one. Real archival footage, primary of Afghanistan in the late 1980s and early 1900s when this story takes place, is occasionally spliced in, a reminder that while everything in this film is fancifully realized, these events and people are real. Amin’s journey conjures universal themes of acceptance and belonging, but “Flee” above all else remains his story. Between his reminiscences of the past, we catch scenes set in the present of Amin and his future husband attempting to settle down together. By finally reckoning with the pain of his past, Amin is able to find some peace in the present and future. “Flee” is a remarkable document of what it’s like to live on the run, an incredibly exhilarating and moving story in both content and form, and one of the most unique and affecting documentaries I’ve seen.

“Flee” will be released in theaters on December 3. Runtime: 93 minutes. Rated PG-13.

A paper mache alien is one of the stars of “Alien on Stage”

ALIEN ON STAGE

It would be easy to initially mistake “Alien on Stage” for a mockumentary in the vein of “This is Spinal Tap” or “Best in Show.” That’s less to do with the premise being too outlandish, and more because the personalities of all the individuals profiled seem almost too large to be real—and yet, they are. Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey produced and directed the documentary “Alien on Stage” after becoming inspired by the stage adaptation of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic “Alien” put on by—wait for it—a group of bus drivers from Dorset. The amateur theater group, who called themselves the Paranoid Dramatics and are led by no-sense director Dave Mitchell, had staged classic British pantomimes in the past, but their original production of “Alien” wasn’t a smash—until Kummer, Harvey, and a group of other fans help get the show to perform on London’s West End for one night only. The first half of the film introduces the director, writer, actors, and various personnel involved in putting on the show and the behind-the-scenes drama, from botched rehearsals to the struggle to create some of the special effects, while the second half is essentially a highlight reel of the play as it is performed on the West End. “Alien on Stage” is funny—truly, who would pick this movie of all movies to adapt for the stage?—but it doesn’t make fun of anyone involved, even though it’s clear that these actors, many of whom hilariously don’t resemble their onscreen counterparts at all, aren’t technically great performers. Everyone’s just there to have a good time, and it’s even awe-inspiring to watch the ingenious methods by which they recreate certain scenes, like the famous chest-bursting sequence. But “Alien on Stage” only digs deep into a couple of the people involved in the production, and it’s hard to become more invested when we don’t have a clear sense of their motivation in the first place. But their personalities are all so vivid, that it’s hard not to be entertained. It’s amazing what creative people can accomplish with some ingenuity and a little sense of humor.

Runtime: 86 minutes.

Tennis star Arthur Ashe, the subject of “Citizen Ashe”

CITIZEN ASHE

Filmmakers Rex Miller and Sam Pollard (whose great documentary “MLK/FBI” played at SLIFF last year) direct this documentary about the life and career of tennis player Arthur Ashe. Ashe’s list of accomplishments is nothing short of impressive: the first (and as of now, only) Black man to win singles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open. The first Black player to be picked for the U.S. Davis Cup team. Ranked number one in the world multiple times from the mid-60s until his retirement in 1980. In fact, Ashe moved from his hometown of Richmond, Virginia to St. Louis as a teenager, where he developed his skills and was ultimately award a tennis scholarship to UCLA, despite it being such a predominantly white sport. But as “Citizen Ashe” explores, Ashe’s accomplishments were more than just athletic. He was advocate for causes throughout his entire life, from civil rights, to speaking out against South African apartheid, and later, after he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, raising awareness about that virus at the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. Pollard and Miller’s film isn’t assembled in any particularly noteworthy way—it contains the usual series of archival clips, photos, and talking heads, with Ashe’s widow Jeanne Moutoussamy providing the most moving insights—but it is informative and fluidly flips between discussions of Ashe’s personal life and the causes he championed on and off the court and his career and approach to tennis without them ever feeling like separate stories. Maybe it’s just because the sports knowledge I hold in my brain amounts to about zero, but I didn’t know about Ashe and his story before watching this film, and came away with a solid understanding of who he was as a tennis player, as an activist, and as a person. That’s really all a documentary needs to do to be successful.

“Citizen Ashe” will be released in select theaters on December 3, followed by a release on HBO Max in the future. Runtime: 96 minutes.

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