Flee opens with a title card explaining that it tells a true story, but that names and locations have been altered to protect its subjects. The documentary’s animated visuals provide these people with pseudonymity — chiefly lead character Amin, an Afghan refugee who is a childhood friend of director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Through Amin’s recollections, the film begins in 1980s Kabul, then travels to Moscow, where his family first goes after leaving Afghanistan following the outbreak of civil war, and ultimately ends up in Denmark, where he bases his application for asylum on a lie that until now he had never revealed.
“Most people can’t even begin to imagine how fleeing like that affects you, what it means for your relationships with other people, how much it destroys you,” Amin says toward the end of the film. The movie subtly comments on the brokenness of systems that make it difficult for displaced people to find safety — its antagonists are human traffickers who treat them like dispensable cargo and police officers who prey on asylum seekers. But Rasmussen says that it was never his intention to simply tell another “refugee story.” He explained this and more in conversation with Hyperallergic over Zoom. This interview has been edited and condensed for space.
Hyperallergic: How did you meet Amin?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: I was 15. I grew up in this very small village in Denmark, and one day Amin showed up. He had come all by himself from Afghanistan and stayed in foster care with a family just around the corner from where I lived. We started meeting at the bus stop every morning, going to high school. He learned Danish really fast. Going back and forth between the village and the high school, we became good friends. Of course, already back then, I was curious about his story and how and why he had come, but he didn’t want to talk about it.
H: Why did you feel it was important to tell his story now?
JPR: As our friendship grew, it was always there as a missing piece of the puzzle. 15 years ago, I asked if he would do a radio documentary (I have a background in radio), but he said no. He didn’t feel ready. But he also said he knew that he would have to share his story at some point, and that when he was ready, he would share it with me.
Years passed, and I was invited to this workshop in Denmark called ANIDOX, where they combine animators and documentary filmmakers to develop ideas, and I thought maybe this could be the way to tell his story. We met and I asked him, and he said that he felt ready, and he was intrigued by the fact that he could be anonymous behind animation. It’s not easy for him to talk about these things, and he feared having to face people in public, who would all of a sudden know his innermost secrets and traumas, that he would maybe have to small-talk about it in the street, or the supermarket, or in working situations. That he wouldn’t have to worry about that because he’d be anonymous freed him up. He said, ‘Okay, let’s do it, this feels right.’
H: How did you navigate your relationship with Amin as a director, having been his friend first and foremost?
JPR: Because we’ve known each other for 25 years, I think we’re used to asking each other hard questions. Because we respect each other, we know it comes from a good place. It was a mix, of course, and I was concerned about if he would be able to recognize himself in the film in the end, but he was a big part of the process. The story takes place over more than 30 years, so I had to choose a path through it. I transcribed all the interviews and made a document for everything I wanted to have in the film, then showed it to him to comment on. The same went for the editing. It really felt like a symbiotic process, where he wanted to share his story and I really wanted to know it.
H: You’ve said that you see this movie as telling your friend’s story, rather than a refugee’s story. What was important for you to consider as you were making the film?
JPR: I never had the intention to go out and find a refugee to make a film about. This was really a story about a friendship, but it changed during production. In the beginning it was just me being curious about my friend, and then the refugee crisis hit Europe in 2015, and suddenly we had Syrian refugees [in Denmark]. It reshaped my idea of the story a little bit. But I wanted to give some nuance to the refugee story, because often refugees are just described by what they need. Being a refugee is not an identity; it’s a circumstance. So giving a human face to refugees became more prominent in the process of making the film.
Yes, Amin is a refugee, but he’s so much more. He was a young gay Afghan boy, and he couldn’t be openly gay, so he had to hide that. Then he arrived in Denmark and couldn’t be honest about his past. So he’s always had to ‘flee’ himself somehow. I hope people will see how important it is to find a place where you feel you can be who you are, that they will relate even if they’re not gay or a refugee.
H: How did you determine the aesthetic of the movie? What references were you drawing on?
JPR: It was a long process. I hadn’t done animation before, so I had to learn the craft and the process. I spent a lot of time looking at references, figuring out, ‘Okay, we like this kind of color, we like this kind of light, we like this composition,’ and also looking at how we could tie animation to the archival footage so that it felt authentic. So it was really about gathering a lot of material, picking the elements we liked, and then putting it together. We made this art bible that had all these elements when we started production.
H: Do you feel like your relationship with Amin has changed in the process of making the film?
JPR: We definitely became closer. He has carried this around for so many years, and I didn’t realize how much it affected everything in his life. Keeping secrets creates a distance between people. Now that the story is out there, he can talk about it whenever he feels like it. You can tell that he’s calmer now, that he’s kind of settled down.
Flee is now playing in select theaters.
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