"Flee" director on protecting a refugee's identity through animation: "He is always having to hide"

Jonas Poher Rasmussen spoke to Salon about his Oscar-nominated documentary pushing cinematic narrative boundaries

Published March 17, 2022 8:56PM (EDT)

Flee (Neon)
Flee (Neon)

"Flee" made Oscar history by being simultaneously nominated for Best Animated Film, Best International Film, and Best Documentary. And it really deserves to win in any if not all of those categories. This courageous, uplifting film, directed and cowritten by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, has his friend Amin tell his story about being a gay, Afghani refugee publicly for the first time.

Rasmussen, who met Amin in Denmark when they were teenagers, recounts Amin's life in Kabul in the 1980s when his father was disappeared, and his family migrated to Russia — the only country that would accept them — as warfare was getting too intense at home. "Flee" also depicts the horrors of human trafficking as Amin's family members seek passage out of Russia. The film also explores Amin's coming to terms with his sexuality as a young man, as well as his current relationship with his partner Kasper, who wants them to buy a house together. 

Rasmussen's film is thoughtful and graceful in part because of Amin's emotional recollections, but also because the animation allows the story to be told as a memory piece toggling back and forth in time. The film is animated to protect Amin's identity, and it recounts an emotional journey as Amin struggles to find home and self-worth, while living in fear of being found out as a refugee or as queer.

RELATED: How one young actor is using American Sign Language in animation

"Flee," which is available on Hulu, truly deserves the Academy member's love and votes. Salon spoke with Rasmussen about his film and his chances at the Oscars. 

What can you say about being nominated in three separate categories, and is there one that you would most want to win? Why?

This film really started in my living room, with a friend of mine, almost a decade ago now. In the beginning, we thought, well, if we're lucky, this will be on local TV in Denmark. And here we are nine years later. It's crazy! I would be thrilled to win in any category. Of course, it's a documentary — a story about my friend — so that was where I had pictured it myself, but to see it spread among three categories is pretty amazing.

How are you hoping voters will respond to your film?

It is boundary-pushing and uses the medium in a way that hasn't been done a lot. There have been animated documentaries before, but there are still new ways to tell stories, and telling true stories with animation can ease difficult topics. "Flee" is about refugees. There are so many of these stories in the media. "Flee" tells a refugee story in another way — one that is a bit more creative. Here, you don't have to relate to a human face; the animation eases you in and makes you listen more. 

Obviously, animation was used to protect Amin's identity. Can you discuss how you visually approached the story, blurring out faces of authority, shifting the style or palette of the film for the setting?

It was really important to us to keep the core of the film as Amin's testimony and have the style of the animation support what is being said. We did a lot of research to know what things looked like in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Moscow in the 1990s, and made sure we could go seamlessly between the archival footage and the animation. It was important that we had the authenticity throughout so people wouldn't dismiss this as a fiction. The film is a documentary, and this is real. Authenticity was really crucial. We found our references in visual artists, painters, photographers, live action films, documentary films, animated films. We were picking and choosing things that we thought could help us out.

The film is about loneliness and solitude so we drew a lot of inspiration from Edward Hopper paintings for how we would treat light and color, because there is a sense of solitude. For Moscow, we used at photographer Alexander Gronsky's images. For the sequence at night walking though forest in Russia and Estonia, the lighting was inspired by the South Korean live-action film, "Burning." Every sequence had different inspirations.  

Your film is a documentary, but it tells its story through interviews with its subject, flashbacks, news reports, and dramatization. Can you talk about your approach to creating the narrative?

It was about listening carefully to how he told the story, hearing his voice, and seeing it happen in dramatizations rather than having Amin explaining everything in voiceover. When he starts talking about his trauma, it becomes very emotional, and it is important that we hear his voice say it — that we give room when he can't talk, or misses a word, or takes a breath. That gives a humanity to the storytelling. When he starts talking about trauma, you sense his voice change. We need to see this in the animation as well, so we go to a more graphic and surreal animation. His voice indicates that it was not about what things looked like, but an emotion he had. We should see his fear and his sadness, and here animation was really handy because it could be a lot more expressive.

The archive footage was there to remind people that this is a real story and the reasons why he had to flee. We had to keep the authenticity to make sure people understood that underneath the animation there was a real person. It was a long process of figuring out timing — when do we go into the interview room, when he is reflecting on what he went through, when do we go into reenactments of the sequences he went through, when do we go into a more traumatic layer? Again, a lot of it came down to listening carefully to what he said. 

Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau both came on as executive producers. Can you talk about their support and the importance that gave the film and your Oscar campaign?

This story was important to take to a broad audience. It's not just a film, it's a documentary film touching on social issues that we have all over the world, so to get a nuanced refugee story out there that is important for so many people.

Coming from Denmark, and not having done anything notable before, and Amin being anonymous, it was going to be difficult to get attention; so having Riz and Nikolaj representing the film and helped boost attention. Riz was super-thrilled to be a part of project. He works a lot on representation in film, and this was right up his alley. He thought this story was so important, so he was happy to help. Nikolaj lives 10 miles from me in Copenhagen, and he was keen to be a part of it. To have those voices like that, and to have Bong Joon-ho write a letter about how he loved the film. To have that behind us, creating attention for a film that is a double niche project — because it is an animated documentary — we need this push. It's not something people turn to when they want to see a movie on a Friday night. 

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How do you perceive "Flee" faring against its competition?

Of course, it's tough; there are such amazing films in the competition. I hope people will relate to the story and they will see it. In the animation category, we are the odd one out because the films are talking dragons, and kids' films, and ours is a harrowing refugee story. It will be very difficult to get that one. But I think a lot of people in the animation branch will appreciate the hard work put into this low-budget animated film, and appreciate that animation as an art form can be used for something other than kids' films. I hope that people see that this film tried to do something else and will vote for it for that reason.

In the Documentary category, all of the films are beautiful and important. I hope we win, but I feel just getting the three nominations we've come pretty far. 

"Flee" also features a storyline on Amin's sexuality, his relationship with Kasper. How do you think the film has made a topic not mentioned in Afghanistan more prominent in our culture? 

To me, the story of him being a gay Afghan boy and arriving in Denmark and not being able to be honest about his past — he is always having to hide things. In Afghanistan, he had to hide that he was gay, and in Denmark he had to hide his past. This notion of people who can't be honest about who they are — if it is LGBTQ people in Afghanistan, or other places in the world where it is not accepted, or if it is refugees who cannot be honest about where they come from, it is crucial to create room for them to be who they are. I would love for Afghans to see this film and accept that if they have a gay son in their family, it is alright, and you can live with that. It is difficult for us to get a screening in Afghanistan right now, but hopefully at some point. 

I understand that Amin needs to have his identity protected. Will he be at the Oscars? 

No. For him, all of this is overwhelming. With all of the fuss surrounding the film, he is even more happy that he's anonymous.

"Flee" is streaming on Hulu (with a supplemental dubbed version for accessibility) and is available on demand. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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