Filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen on the journey that was ‘Flee’, an animated documentary which secured three nominations at the 2022 Oscars

Filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen on the journey that was ‘Flee’, an animated documentary which secured three nominations at the 2022 Oscars

Somewhere in the Baltic sea, a dilapidated boat ferrying fleeing Afghans crosses paths with a Norwegian cruise ship.

As the refugees heave a sigh of relief, the onlookers document their plight by whipping out cameras.

Amin Nawabi remembers feeling embarrassed and ashamed. This scene, midway through  Flee, is nothing short of heartbreaking: a personal memory retold and visualised in succinct detail, it crystallises the glaring contrast between people in need and people with privilege.

The animated documentary, which has made waves with a triple nomination for the 2022 Oscars, follows its protagonist Amin Nawabi. A refugee who escaped war-torn Kabul in the ‘80s, to the Soviet Union. Amin later tried to seek asylum in Scandinavia.

Interview with director of 'Flee', an animated documentary

Interview with director of ‘Flee’, an animated documentary
| Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Made originally in Danish by filmmaker Jonas Poher Rassmusen, this is a story that Jonas has a lot of personal investment in: Amin (not his real name) happens to be his friend.

Over a Zoom call from Copenhagen, Jonas narrates, “To go back, all of this really started when I met Amin 25 years ago. He showed up all by himself in my little sleepy Danish hometown. He came from Afghanistan and stayed in foster care with a family just around the corner from where I live.” Amin learned Danish quickly. And soon, they started meeting every morning to go to school together.

Thus started a kinship that has not lost its sheen to this day. “Already back then, I was curious about how and why he had come, but he really didn’t want to talk about it. This story kind of became a ‘black box’ within him and our friendship,” Jonas continues. And they moved on. They travelled together, weathered heartbreak together and spent every New Year’s Eve together. “But there has always been an elephant in the room.”

Fifteen years ago, when Jonas asked Amin if he could do a radio documentary about his story, Amin refused. He said he wasn’t ready. “But he said he felt a disconnect within himself. He said he couldn’t connect his past and present and didn’t feel like a whole person.”

Later, when Jonas was invited to an animators’ event at Denmark where he was asked to pitch an idea for an animated documentary, Amin’s story rushed back to mind.

When Jonas approached him with the idea, Amin was intrigued by the fact he could be anonymous behind the animation. He felt that since most of the story takes place in the past, animation is a powerful tool to make the past come alive. “I thought we could go back and revitalise Afghanistan in the ‘80s and Amin’s childhood home in Kabul. Because it is a story of memory and trauma, we could use animation to be a lot more expressive.”

A still from the film

A still from the film
| Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The documentary, sans translation, features Amin’s own voice: as though he is telling his story. “Amin felt this would be the right way to open up.” For this, he sat down with his friend for a series of interviews.

Then, the art director, Jess Nicholls, spent months diving into archival footage to aptly visualise Afghanistan in the ‘80s. It wasn’t easy. “At times, we would look at the archival footage, and draw it and put it into the animation. It was very important to us to make it feel real. Because it is a real story of a real person,” says Jonas.

Flee ended up being a learning curve, he adds. Though the story is told from inside of their friendship, over the course of the film’s birth, he realised he could challenge mainstream media’s perception of refugees. Moreover, today, the film has become even more relevant.

Jonas was particular about Amin being able to recognise himself in the film. “We sat down and saw the film together. When the end credits rolled, he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know if this is a good film.’ He said was not able to separate his own emotions from the story.” Right then, Jonas knew that he had succeeded.

Ask the filmmaker to name one instance in Amin’s narration that jolted him, and he points to the scene this interview opens with: “I felt like one of the Norwegian tourists taking the photographs, since I was the one documenting  his story.”

Director of ‘Flee’

Director of ‘Flee’
| Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT



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