Jonas Poher Rasmussen isn’t the first filmmaker to combine the expressive capabilities of animation with the veracity of documentary, yet Flee makes for an especially harmonious synchronization of the two forms. The drawings allow his subject and friend, Amin Nawabi, a refugee from Afghanistan now living as an accomplished academic in Demark, the veil of protection to share his harrowing journey while maintaining his anonymity and privacy.
The film’s style, though, also opens up Amin’s narrativization of his life, as recounted to Rasmussen, to assume the tenor of ecstatic truth rather than traditional verité. Flee’s blend of 2D animation, expressionistic flourishes, and archival footage faithfully capture the chimerical contours of Amin’s mind as he relays the alternatingly real and surreal details of his life.
While Flee provides a humane antidote to news coverage of global migrant crises that flattens refugees into mere images, Rasmussen never loses sight of whose emotional journey matters most here. The film foregrounds Amin’s testimony in his contemporary struggles to open up fully to his husband as they hang on the precipice of establishing their future home together.
By Rasmussen’s own telling in a conversation prior to the film’s theatrical release, the process of making Flee provided Amin with the confidence to connect, rather than compartmentalize, his past and present. Our discussion covered the decades-long journey of Flee from story to screen as it changed mediums, visual styles, and ultimately the participants themselves.
Was there ever a consideration that Amin’s telling of his story wouldn’t be a part of Flee? It’s such a crucial backbone holding everything together, and I’m curious if that was immediately evident or something you discovered in constructing the narrative.
No, that was a part of it from the start. The story is really from the inside of our friendship. It’s about two friends where one has a secret. He kept the secret for 25 years and finally was in a place where he felt like he needed to get it out there.
Did he tell you the story chronologically, or did you snap it into that order in the edit?
In the beginning, we got the broad strokes. And then, slowly, we’d go deeper and deeper. Some things he didn’t want to talk about in the beginning. We’d just skip that, move on, and then go back later. Sometimes I would do an interview, he would talk about something, I would listen to it, I would have new questions pop up, and I would go back and say, “Can we please revisit this memory and go a bit deeper?” So, in the beginning, it was chronological.
Were there any worries about re-traumatization or reopening old wounds?
From the start, it was an open conversation where we said, “Okay, now we’re just kind of trying this out. If it doesn’t work for you, you can walk out, we won’t do the film, and that’s fine.” It was just the two of us in a room, and he was able to always say, “I’m not able to talk about this right now.” It was about creating a safe space for him to share his story. And then, of course, when we started to get funding, we looked at each other and said, “Should we do this? Are you ready?” Luckily, he was. The first thing he said was when we started doing interviews was that he really felt that he needed to do this. And he didn’t care if the film was going to be made or not. He just felt the importance of finally being able to share his story.
Your background is in audio storytelling, and you had originally approached Amin about recording his story for a radio documentary. At what point did you determine that it’d be best as an animated film?
When I asked him 15 years ago if we could do a radio documentary, he immediately said that he wasn’t ready, so I didn’t really explore that path at all. But he also said that he knew that he would have to share his story at some point, and when he was ready, he would like to share it with me and we could do something on it. So, I kind of had it in the back of my head. But I didn’t act on it until I got this invitation for this workshop in Denmark called ANIDOX where they combine animators and documentary filmmakers to develop ideas for animated documentaries. And I thought that this was maybe the way to tell his story.
I think what really allowed him to say yes was the fact that he could be anonymous behind animation, because what you hear in the film is him sharing his story for the first time, which wasn’t easy for him to do. [He knew he] could share his story but still control what he wanted to talk about and when he wanted to open up. He wouldn’t meet people in the street who would all of a sudden ask questions about traumatic events or secrets that he kept [to himself] for years and years. That’s what really enabled him—or freed him—to open up.
You’ve mentioned that some animation styles that you tested felt too “toony.” How did you land on the film’s ultimate look?
It was a long journey of making a lot of wrong turns and then slowly getting to a place [where] we found a style that fit Amin’s voice. The key, fundamentally, was that we wanted to keep the authenticity that’s in the voice so you know you have this authentic testimony underneath the animation. But it was really a process of just doing another [type of] research, which was about finding a lot of references. We did this big “art bible” [that allowed us to] figure out what kind of light, colors, and compositions we liked. And in the end, we had a visual style, but it was a long process. It took a long time to fund the film, but it was actually kind of good because this is my first animation. It was quite a steep learning curve to just understand that process and find the right visual expression for the film. It took time.
Not that nonfiction and animation have mutually exclusive visual vocabularies, but you use some stylistic elements like jump cuts that we don’t often see in animated films. How were you calibrating the balance of those two aesthetics?
I really wanted to keep the documentary feeling and the authenticity by having these little things that you know from documentary in there like the jump cuts. When the camera moves a little bit, sometimes it’s a little out of focus. With these things, I thought, “Okay, we need to bring that in there to keep this feeling of a documentary, of authenticity.” We tried to put as many things in there as possible that could remind people throughout that this is a real story. It’s not fiction. Underneath it all, you have a very real testimony.
One of the transitions that struck me was when Amin says, “Now I remember,” and the film drifts into more expressionistic animation. It seems like the animation finds its fullest purpose when it’s capturing this relationship between memory and reality.
When I did the interviews, you could hear in his voice that sometimes he would slow down and he would have a hard time expressing himself—either because he didn’t really remember [something], or maybe because it was something traumatic that he had a hard time talking about. I thought we needed to [represent that] in the visual style of the film. And because it’s animation, you can be a lot more expressive than you can with the camera and really try to be honest toward the emotion he has in that exact situation. I’m not trying to be realistic to what things look like. I think animation really helped us to be, somehow, more honest to the testimony than we could have been with the camera.
How did you land on your depiction of the film’s most tragic moments? You use a lot of expressionistic etching for scenes involving the traffickers. That abstraction drives home the terror of those moments in many ways, but you also show a body bleeding out in the frozen street with archival footage.
It was very deliberate that we wanted to show the horrors of war. That kid in the street when he leaves Afghanistan is there to show us that this would have been Amin’s position had he stayed behind. He could be that kid on the street. It was just important to show why [he and his family] had to flee. It wasn’t because they felt like they want to go somewhere else. They couldn’t stay, and [we wanted] to be very clear on why they had to do what they do.
Did animating Amin help to present more than the one-dimensional portrait of refugees we often receive through the media? He feels totally human but also like a character, and the film bridges a gap between narrative and nonfiction in that way.
The audience is let into a room where it’s two people who have been friends for 25 years. Being a refugee isn’t an identity in itself. Often, refugees are just depicted [in terms of] what they need, but they’re complex, psychological human beings like everyone else. So, the fact that this story is told from the inside of a friendship between two people who’ve known each other for 25 years, I was just able to give a lot more nuance to the refugee story than you get normally when it’s some random refugee you meet in the news.
The film opens with you asking Amin what home means to him. Has working on this project altered your own definition of home?
I grew up very privileged in Denmark and have always had a safe place to go to. But working on this film, and also starting to think about my own family’s backstory, it really made me appreciate my home. You all of a sudden see that this is something that can happen to anyone. Everyone can be in a situation where they’re forced to flee.
What effect has sharing the film with the world had on the real Amin?
He’s very happy with the film. The first time he saw it, he was very emotional about it. But he also said that he didn’t know if he got emotional because it was a good film or just because it’s his story on screen. He was nervous before the premiere at Sundance because he was still afraid that people wouldn’t be able to relate to his story. So the fact that it really did resonate with people and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive made a big difference for him. This entire journey is a little overwhelming for both of us, but so far it’s been good.
To your earlier point, though, it sounds like maybe just the act of making the film transformed him regardless of its release and reception. Just sharing it with the first person was the most important part.
Definitely, I think he’s in a better place now. For so long, he couldn’t connect his past and his present. To finally be able to talk about his past when he feels like it, connect the two, and feel more like a whole person has made a big difference for him. He feels a lot more at home within himself. He really feels settled. Ever since I’ve known him, he’s always moved around so much and travelled all the time. He and his husband bought this house, and then the pandemic hit and he had to stay at home for a year and a half. And he really enjoyed it. He sends me photos all the time from the garden, a few flowers popping up. He’s in a good place.