TIFF 2021: 'Becoming Cousteau' and 'Flee'

Updated: Sep 22

This past week, I was granted the opportunity to catch two digital screenings at TIFF. One is about a remorseful oceanographer fighting for the environment and the other is about an Afghan immigrant detailing his experiences in a refugee crisis. In this double review, I will be taking a look at Becoming Cousteau and Flee.


Becoming Cousteau (2021)

Director: Liz Garbus

After having made documentaries about influential figures like Marilyn Monroe, Bobby Fischer, and Nina Simone, director Liz Garbus returns to cover another historical figure with Becoming Cousteau.

Becoming Cousteau charts the life of Jacques Cousteau, a French oceanographer renowned for his contributions to marine research and conservation. Cousteau led an extraordinary life, and this documentary is rich in detail of his many adventures. From pioneering underwater diving technologies to making hundreds of documentaries about marine exploration, Cousteau’s many contributions are analyzed in depth by Garbus. She spotlights each contribution with remarkable conciseness. All of these events contain an underlying theme of curiosity about the unknown, which Cousteau embodies as a scientist. The film is an ode to researchers and explorers; it’s also an ode to the spirit of inquisitiveness, which, in the case of this documentary, entails being interested in the world's best-kept secret, the ocean.

This documentary could have just stopped at depicting Cousteau’s career and his legacy, but Garbus also makes time to take a deeper dive into Cousteau as a person. Looking at his marriages and his constant absence as a father to his children, it’s clear that Cousteau’s personal life is not as glamorous as his marine adventures. However, this facet of his life helps the documentary to paint a more well-rounded portrait of his character, warts and all, through a combination of unseen stock footage and talking head interviews.

Later on in his life, Cousteau became remorseful over having contributed to the destruction of the environment. This led him to dedicate the rest of his life to marine conservation. This is where the film's elemental empathy comes in, as it invites us to make our own efforts to preserve the shorelines and the waters. Just as Cousteau himself advocated, the film serves as a wake-up call for people about ongoing environmentalist efforts.

Jacques Cousteau’s legacy is rich. Fitting everything into a feature-length documentary is no easy task, but Garbus does it with ease and conciseness. For this film to cover this much material, doing it in 91 minutes is rather impressive.


Flee (2021)

Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

One of the most essential human needs is shelter. Many of us often take it for granted, never realizing how lucky we are to have that basic need fulfilled. We also don’t realize that there are a lot of other people in the world that don’t have stable accommodations. Among the people that are having issues with unstable shelters are refugees.

Flee recounts the story of one such refugee, Amin. He fled his home country of Afghanistan amidst its political turmoil during the late ’80s. Many years later, after settling down in Denmark, he describes his harrowing experiences for the first time to the director.

The word “refugee” often conjures up images and media reports of people crammed into a small lifeboat or refugee camps. Despite the best intentions of some of these media reports, it often indirectly dehumanizes them, reducing them into nothing more than objects of sympathy. We often forget that underneath these press summaries, refugees are people like us, but ones who’ve lost their homes and have been forced into precarious circumstances

With Flee, an Afghan refugee’s singular search for a safe haven brings pathos and humanity back to the refugee crisis. Through multiple interviews, we learn of Amin’s childhood and his journey to self-discovery. His innocence stolen at an early age, he was forced to deal with exceedingly harsh environments, both physically and emotionally. Along with these pressures, Amin was in the closet and unable to come out for fear of rejection by family members.

The decision to film this documentary through the medium of animation proves extra powerful in depicting the hardships that Amin faces. Not only was this decision done to help protect the identities of everyone involved, but it also helps the film recreate key flashbacks that would have been otherwise distasteful if done in live-action. The animation, done in the style of hand-drawn 2D, conveys the desperation and the bleakness of the circumstances more effectively.

Although the film ends on a somewhat optimistic note, the same could not be said for thousands of other refugees. Sadly, history is repeating itself again, with the director lamenting about the Afghan refugee crisis in a foreword to the screener. Even without the added context of the ongoing humanitarian crisis, Flee is one of the most essential viewings of 2021. Not only is it a humanizing and sobering look at refugee hardships, but it’s also an extremely relevant movie that will not lose its timeliness anytime soon. Its criticality lies in its intimate nature. Amin’s story is one of many, and we should do our part to listen.

-Lester

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