Flee is a unique cinematic experience that will move you to tears. Tracing the tale of a remarkable anonymous refugee dubbed Amin on his journey from Afghanistan to Denmark, this extremely personal animated documentary makes incredible use of its medium. Amin himself guides you through his story, an animated version of him unsurely recounting his struggles moving from country to country, being at the mercy of powers much greater than he, and struggling to find a place in the world where he belongs. The film shines insight on what it means to be a refugee, someone who is gay, or just a person who has known loss so deep that they cannot allow themselves to relax. The animated debut of documentarian Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Flee is such a beautifully crafted, artfully intimate, and sensitively framed story that deserves to be crowned as one of the best films of 2021.
Following the film’s landmark triple Oscar nominations, we were fortunate enough to sit down with Jonas Poher Rasmussen and dive into his work on Flee. With a documentary background, Rasmussen was able to bottle the authentic and unrestricted nature of nonfiction work and meld it with the intentionally structured process of animated filmmaking. He described this with us, as well as other tactics he deployed during the crafting of his critically decorated success.
Flee is a triple Oscar nominee in Best International Film, Best Animated film, and Best Documentary film. Did you anticipate this amount of recognition and praise?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: No, not at all! It’s been building, slowly. This started out nine years ago just being a conversation between Amin and me in my living room. In the beginning, we thought, “Maybe this could go on national TV in Denmark,” and we would be happy about that. Here, nine years after, three nominations, and it’s just crazy. Starting out, we didn’t picture ourselves here.
It’s the first film to ever be nominated in all of those categories simultaneously. So as an animated documentary, what do you think the medium has allowed you to explore? How specifically was animation able to tell this story to its fullest potential?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: There are different things to that. One thing was that we wanted to be anonymous, and with animation, we could do that and that was what really made [Amin] start opening up. So this film wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for animation. But also, because it’s a story that mostly takes place in the past – in Afghanistan, Moscow, the 80s, 90s, and so forth – the animation really helped us make the past come back alive. We could bring his childhood home back to life and place him in it.
Also, because it’s a story about memory and trauma, animation enabled us to go into this more expressive and surreal style. Whenever he starts talking about his traumas and things that are really difficult for him to talk about, we show it in another way. It became more poetic and emotional than trying to depict what things look like. To go into his emotions is something we can do with animation and it would not have been possible in the same way with the camera.
You grew up with Amin, the subject of Flee. How much of his story did you know before you started this project and how much was revealed during interviews?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: I knew very little when we started out; he hadn’t really shared the story with anyone. I knew that he lived in Russia for a while because he spoke Russian. And I had a sense that he had some family in Sweden. I thought they were cousins. Then, in the process, I realized that it was his mother. But other than that, I didn’t really know anything. So what you’re hearing in [Flee] is for the first time.
When he first agreed to do this, you must have had an idea of what the film was going to be. But as those new details came to light, how did that change the structure of Flee?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: It feels like it grew from the testimony. In the beginning, I thought I was going to hear one thing, and then it changed in the process. But that’s often how I work, at least, when making documentaries. You have to listen carefully and see where a story takes you. You write the summary of your film, and then see where it takes you. I didn’t have anything planned out in the beginning so it’s just about following the lead of the conversation and going with it.
Did you have any apprehensions about adapting such a personal narrative? What were you very careful with when you were both handling the interview process and also the depictions?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: It was really important to me to have him, Amin, along all the way. One thing was to make sure that he felt comfortable in sharing his story. So for the first year and a half, we agreed that we were just trying it out. We started doing these conversations and I would record it, but we had an agreement that he could always say, “Okay, but this isn’t working,” and then he could walk out the back door and we wouldn’t make the film – just to make sure that he felt comfortable doing this at all.
Then, further down the line in the process, it was really about showing him things. I transcribed all the material into a document. It was about choosing what positives would be in the film and showing him what I chose to be in there. He could then comment on things that were factually wrong, or if I had left off things that he felt were crucial to his story. I would also pass by the signs and the characters – like how we depicted his telephone and his home in Moscow – just to make sure that he felt that he could recognize his own story. He would also see edits for the same reasons. It was really important to me, because he’s my friend, to make sure that he felt that this was his story in the end, and didn’t say “Okay, but this doesn’t really show what it was like.”
What are the most important lessons you learned as an artist while making Flee, from its conception to its release?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: This is my first animated film, and I have a background in documentary, so this was a very different experience. In animation, because it’s so expensive to do animation, you need to be extremely precise in how you tell your story. Normally, in a documentary, you have maybe 50, 100, or 200 hours of material, and then you build the story in the edit. But here, it was different because we couldn’t animate hundreds of hours of material. So we needed to be really precise in the edit before we could animate anything telling the story.
To me, that was the biggest learning thing – to understand the importance of precision and all the preparations [needed] in animation. That’s something I’m going to try to use in my future projects: to really be precise in the way of telling a story and really prepare myself because it gives an amazing kind of creativity and freedom in the end.
It’s not all animated, though. You intercut actual footage, so how did you choose where to place it? Was it about creating an atmosphere or were there specific story elements that you wanted to be displayed by actual footage?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: It was a little bit of both. It was important to me to have it as droplets throughout the film. So you got reminded all the way through that this is a real story and it’s based on actual events. One type of backup footage would be like the historical events when the Mujahideen invades Kabul and Amin has to flee. I wanted to show that and, also prior to that, how the royal family in Afghanistan got kicked out by the Russians. You have these kinds of historical events, so you understand the reason he has to flee is because of things that happened in the world we all belong to.
Then there are personal things, like when he’s in his prison in Estonia or when sisters are in these containers going to Sweden. I wanted to try to be as authentic as possible so we searched for that specific archival footage. What you see in the film is actually from the time Amin was there, and the same thing with the containers. So it’s trying to keep authenticity throughout and be as precise as possible to his story.
What are your thoughts on the other animated feature nominees or the other documentary nominees? I’m assuming you’ve watched them.
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: I have, yeah. We’re at a point now where they’re all just phenomenal films. Of course, our film in the animation category sticks out because it’s not a big studio film and it’s for adults. But I’ve seen all the films with my kids. My oldest daughter really wants Encanto to win. I made Flee and she’s like, “I need Encanto to win best film!” They’re just all, in different ways, very amazing films that all spotlight hidden stories that you wouldn’t normally see, and to me, at least, open worlds that I don’t normally have an eye into. So it’s really an honor to be amongst all these films.
Do you hope that animation becomes more of a common tool in documentary filmmaking? Since that is where you have your background, do you hope that more people incorporate it?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: Definitely. There are amazing possibilities in animation to really showcase emotions in a way that you can’t do normally. There are also some amazing possibilities with being creative in how you tell a story in animation. For some subjects that are really difficult to talk about, I think animation can help ease up and talk about things that are normally almost impossible to talk about. So I hope that it definitely will be used.
Do you think you’ll use it again? Do you know what’s coming next for you?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: I have ideas, but you know, what’s going with Flee is kind of taking up all my time and is a little distracting so I haven’t really had time to sit down and work on new ideas. But I have ideas and hopefully, this spring or summer, I’ll be able to sit down.
The reaction to Flee has been very overwhelmingly positive. Bong Joon-ho even wrote a letter in which he called it “the most moving piece of cinema [he] saw [last] year.” What about the film do you think resonates with people so strongly?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: I think it is because it is a universal story in the end. It is, of course, about the physical fight going from Afghanistan to Denmark, but it’s even moreso about a person looking for a place in the world where he can be who he is, with everything that this entails, past his sexuality and everything else. Most people, at a certain point in their life, are looking for a place where they feel okay. But here, there’s room for me to be who I am with everything else. So I think that’s really why, because suddenly it’s not about being a refugee; it’s about being a human being.