When the Oscar nominations are announced on Feb. 8 Flee could pull off an unprecedented trifecta—becoming the first film nominated as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Film and Best Animated Feature.
Not bad for a project that began with modest ambitions.
“It started out with me wanting to do a short animated doc about a friend of mine,” director Jonas Poher Rasmussen says. “In the beginning I just thought it would be like 20 minutes, and then from there it grew and grew.”
The film resulted from a bond between Rasmussen and Amin Nawabi forged a quarter century ago when a teenage Amin arrived as an Afghan refugee in the small Danish town where Rasmussen grew up. Flee is Denmark’s official entry in the International Film category, and in December it made that category’s shortlist.
“I think it’s the first documentary that’s a Danish entry, so it makes me extremely proud and just to represent my country, it does mean something special,” Rasmussen says. “I can tell that people here are really rooting for me and the film, which is a nice feeling.”
In December, Flee also earned a spot on the Documentary Feature shortlist (there is no shortlist for Animated Feature). From the film’s debut at Sundance 2021 it has gripped audiences with the tale of a gay kid growing up in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the era when the Soviets controlled the country. The government seized Amin’s father as a suspected opponent of the regime. He was never seen again.
With the Mujahideen on the brink of seizing full control of Afghanistan in 1989, Amin and his mother and most of his siblings fled—first to Moscow. Effectively stateless, they tried to reach the West, caught in the clutches of human traffickers. Eventually, some members of the family reached Sweden. Amin made it to Denmark after a series of traumatic experiences, by himself, speaking no Danish.
“Making Flee gave me new insights into the drastic consequences of fleeing home, especially as a child, like Amin,” Rasmussen has written. “I began to understand the difficulties that children like them face, when their past and present are so disconnected. I understood why they tended to look ahead to the future, while keeping a safe distance from the people around them.”
The burden of keeping his past a secret weighed on Amin, yet he felt torn about divulging what he’d gone through. Rasmussen, who got into making radio documentaries after finishing school, waited for the moment when his friend might be ready.
“It took a long time, but I think it was actually for the better in the end, because I had to learn the craft and really needed to find the style that fitted his testimony,” Rasmussen says. “And, also, Amin needed to be ready to really open up and share his story.”
The breakthrough came when the director realized the story could be told not as a typical documentary but through animation. That would permit Amin to shield his identity (Amin is a pseudonym, another measure designed to protect his privacy).
“With the animation, we could make him anonymous,” Rasmussen says. “Because his story, it’s hard for him to talk about.”
Creatively, the challenge became settling on what kind of animation to use.
“This is my first animation project, so I had to understand the craft and the process of making it,” Rasmussen says. “In the beginning it was just the animators showing me a lot of different stuff and me pointing, ‘Okay, I like this, I like this, I like this.’ And then we did some tests but the first concepts we did, they became a little too ‘cartoon-y’. The characters had big eyes, and the line was very smooth, and everything was stylized, and it became detached from the testimony. So, we went back and did another process.”
Rasmussen and the animators, a team that included animation director Kenneth Ladekjær and art director Jess Nicholls, adhered to a set of self-imposed guidelines.
“We had these three codewords, which were authenticity, organic and subtle,” Rasmussen recalls. “Those were key words for the process of finding the style of the animation.”
They drew inspiration from a variety of sources.
“There’s a lot of different references,” the director says. “One of them was [artist] Edward Hopper. We have a lot of reference for his use of light and color, it was something we really brought into the film. There’s this solitude, loneliness in his paintings.”
Rasmussen discovered that using animation opened up exceptional storytelling possibilities. In a traditional documentary, what you’ve shot is what you’ve got in edit. With animation, the director might entertain the thought, “We could really use an aerial view here,” and the animators could create it.
“You can get the exact shots you want,” he says. “You can get a shot of some birds flying by [for instance]. There’s so many opportunities and you can be very precise in your storytelling. I hadn’t experienced that before, actually.”
At one point in the film, a young Amin fantasizes about handsome Belgian actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, “the Muscles from Brussels,” hinting at a gay identity that would emerge as Amin got older. Rasmussen and team animated that sequence, and even put in a light touch with the animated Van Damme suddenly winking at Amin.
“I thought that was really important to have this in the film, so you don’t just see the harrowing things, but you also see the very human aspect of having a sexual attraction to Jean-Claude Van Damme,” Rasmussen says. “Everyone had their own things when they were kids, like who you fancied, and Amin’s was Jean-Claude Van Damme, and I thought that was fun. I just thought we need to have that in there to crack open the emotions that the audience would have towards the subject.”
That moment created a bit of a filmmaking dilemma, however. Apparently, you can’t just have Jean-Claude Van Damme wink at will, even in the form of an animated character.
“Fair use [applies] to this, so we needed to find a wink in one of Van Damme’s films because we couldn’t just make him wink—that would be ‘interpreting’ something,” he explains. “I went through a lot of Jean-Claude Van Damme films to find somewhere where he winked so we could copy that and put it in the film.”
Flee has won dozens of awards around the world for best documentary, and almost as many in animation. It was named Best Animated Film at the European Film Awards, the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, and by critics’ groups in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities.
“It’s very cool, and I’m really happy, especially for all the animators behind it, because it’s their craft,” Rasmussen says. “That they get recognition as well is really amazing because they’ve done such an amazing job to translate Amin’s testimony into this format that you don’t normally see.”
Amin settled in Denmark in the 1990s at a time, Rasmussen says, when Danish society exhibited much more willingness to accept refugees. That has changed in recent years with the tide of migrants who have tried to cross into Europe, fleeing war and chaos in Syria and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
“The tone and debate surrounding refugees is really, really harsh here and it’s very polarized,” Rasmussen says, an observation that will sound familiar to Americans coming out of the Trump era. “I started out wanting to do the story about my friend, but then the refugee crisis hit Europe in the process of making the film. I thought, ‘OK, I really want to give refugees a human face.’ And also hoping that I could give some more nuance to refugees because it’s told from the inside of this friendship. I hope it changes people.”
He adds, “Being a refugee, it’s not an identity. It’s something you live through, it’s a life situation, life circumstance. And, yes, Amin is a refugee, but he’s so much more and I was hoping that I could show that with this film.”
That Flee has resonated with many viewers has touched both the filmmaker and his subject.
“The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been really amazing to see how people can relate to the story, even if they’re not refugees or gay,” Rasmussen says. “I know it really means a lot to Amin, because he’s kept it a secret for so many years.”