Escape from Afghanistan: Jonas Poher Rasmussen Animates a Refugee’s Harrowing Journey in Acclaimed Doc Flee

Courtesy of Neon

One of the most tragic news stories of this turbulent year has been the plight of thousands of Afghans, now that the United States has withdrawn its forces after a 20-year presence in the quagmire known as Afghanistan. Those headlines have lent an unexpected timeliness to Flee, Neon’s acclaimed animated documentary about the odyssey of an Afghan boy in the 1980s and ’90s.

Filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen first met Amin (a pseudonym) when both were teenagers. Amin had recently arrived in Rasmussen’s small town in Denmark, a shy refugee with a mysterious backstory. The two boys became lifelong friends; Amin went on to a distinguished career as an academic, while Rasmussen began his creative career in radio documentaries. For years, they talked about the possibility of exploring Amin’s refugee past in a film project.

Then, in 2013, Rasmussen attended the first Anidox, an annual workshop in Denmark that brings together animators and documentarians from across Europe. As the filmmaker recalls, “I saw quite immediately that this was a way I could tell Amin’s story, because he wanted to be anonymous, and with the animation he could be. But also, because the story takes place mostly in the past, and you could revive what his childhood home looked like and what Afghanistan in the ’80s looked like. But especially because it’s very much a story about memories of trauma, and the animation enabled us to be more expressive. It felt like we could be somewhat more honest to the story—when he starts talking about things that he can’t remember or has a hard time talking about, you can show the emotion more so than trying to be realistic. That was a wonderful tool to have.”

Rasmussen used a technique common in Danish radio documentaries, having the subject lie back as if in a therapist’s office and recount their story. His sessions with Amin are replicated in the film using both of their voices, and what they reveal is a harrowing tale of escape to Russia, years spent hiding in a tiny apartment, being betrayed by ruthless and amoral human smugglers, and finally the painful decision to have Amin separate from his family and make the trip to Denmark alone. The movie also explores Amin’s journey as a gay youth in an intolerant world, and his adult relationship with a loving partner.

Rasmussen met with Boxoffice Pro a few days after Flee received a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival.

I assume this is your first animated piece. What was the learning curve like for you?

It was quite steep. But I’ve been very lucky to have a wonderful team. Sun Creature Studio, the animation studio producing the animation, was wonderful about bringing me in. It was a long conversation—we spent a long time developing the visual style. I had two different art directors I worked with very closely in trying to find the right style for the film, finding visual artists, finding different types of animated short films, just trying to find out, OK, what’s the right way to do this. We did a small teaser quite early in the process when we got the first funding. The characters had big eyes and it was very clean. And we thought, this doesn’t work; it needs to feel authentic. We need the characters to feel real. So we did a new pass on it, new character designs where the characters are more flawed and the line isn’t always a straight line. It was a very long process.

And that helps integrate it with the more abstract portions of the film.

Yes, both the more abstract portions, but also the archive [footage], because you have the archive intertwine with the animation. We wanted to bring things from the archive into the animation style, so it felt like they came from the same world. The archive is used to remind people that this is a real story, the reason why he is forced to flee is because of historical events that took place, and the things that happened to him throughout are real things. I thought all the way through that I wanted to use archive as well, and then we should be able to go pretty seamlessly from the archive to the animation.

Did you do any rotoscoping of the live footage you shot?

No, no rotoscoping. But I filmed almost everything. And when I didn’t film, I always made sure to take photos with my phone, so we had visual references all the time. The animation director had all the footage. So he could always go back if he just needed something, a little facial expression, or how he would kind of scratch his arm and stuff like that, just to give authenticity to the animation. He had access to all the shots, and then he could pass on information to his team of animators if he wanted a little personal touch.

I imagine this is probably the most collaborative project you’ve ever been involved with. Did it transcend your initial vision of what it was going to be?

It did big time. In the beginning, I thought it would be a short, animated documentary. Then when he started telling me the story, I could tell this is not a short. I transcribed the interviews I did and tried to organize the material like a script, and pretty soon I had a 100-page script. And then we had to figure out how can we do this, because animation is quite expensive to do. The project grew bigger and bigger. I have a background in documentary, and I’m used to doing most things by myself. Maybe I have a D.P., maybe I have an editor, but here all of a sudden I had a 50-people crew working on the film. Which was truly an amazing experience because these wonderful artists have so many creative ideas. It was very different, but it was a very rewarding experience.

One of the assets of the film is that Amin himself has a real sense of humor, which helps lighten the mood. Otherwise, it could have been a real slog to follow his story.

I totally agree. And I think a lot of that also comes from our friendship. You sense the way we talk to each other. I’ve known him for 25 years, so we have a certain way of talking. Even though things of course are serious, we are also just friends, so we also say silly things. I really wanted to have that in there as well, because, yes, he’s a refugee, but he’s also a lot more. I wanted to show the human aspect—being a refugee is something that was forced on him at a certain time in his life. Of course, it has affected him greatly, and still does. But he’s also a lot of other things. He’s also a friend, a husband, a young brother, a house owner and a cat owner, and all these things—I thought it was important to show that spectrum. And while he was on the run, while he was fleeing, because it was so long, it wasn’t all horrible. It was also tender moments, and exploring the sexuality growing inside of him, falling in love with a young boy in the back of a truck, all these things. There were also some beautiful things happening.

Courtesy of Neon

Obviously, you knew that there was a lot to reveal about him in going into this project. Did you have an inkling that you were going to uncover so much?

No, I knew very little about his story. And it really grew. There were so many different kinds of journeys within the bigger journey from Afghanistan to Denmark, so many things going on. And of course, there’s a lot more than there is in the film, because the film takes place over more than 30 years. So I had to pick and choose which parts should be in the film.

Were there things in your script that he insisted be changed?

There was one thing, but it was something I had taken out of the script. He said, “This was the worst thing I experienced on the journey from Afghanistan to Denmark, and to really understand my story it needs to be in there.” That was the six months he was in prison in Estonia. At some point, I had taken that out because there were so many different stories. And he said, but that was the worst. Being in a prison where you didn’t know if you were going to stay for the rest of your life or what was going to happen. He said I wouldn’t feel it was my story if that wasn’t there. So we had a long conversation about it, and then I decided to put it back in. Throughout the process, he read the scripts, just to make sure that everything was factually correct. But that was the only thing where he said this is crucial to understanding my story.

Have you spoken to him this week during the New York Film Festival?

Yes. I had a friend who was in the audience at Alice Tully Hall who took some photos of me and the audience applauding. She sent those photos to me, and I forwarded them to him. He was very touched by it.

I assume he wasn’t at Sundance [where the film won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize] …

No, he’s not going to go to any festivals. He wants to keep his anonymity. But he snuck into a screening in Denmark with a friend and saw it with an audience, so he has had the experience of seeing it in a cinema.

What does it mean to you that people are able to see Flee in movie theaters?

It’s just amazing to have the opportunity to share Amin’s story with people in a way where they really spend time and sit down and try to understand the human side of a refugee story. At a screening here yesterday, two young men from the Dominican Republic came up and said they were very touched by it. They told me, “This is also our story—we also had to move away from our own country.” So I think a lot of people can relate to it. Even though maybe they’re not refugees or not gay, this thing about trying to find a place in the world where you can be who you are, with everything that entails, I think is pretty common for most people at some point in their lives. That people will spend the 84 minutes, put away their phones and just sit down and look at the story in the darkness, I really appreciate.

It’s sad to have to say this, but the film is timelier than ever because Afghanistan is on everybody’s mind. Obviously, you didn’t know that when you commenced this project.

No, not at all. It’s just heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking to me, because I’ve been working on shots for the film for weeks and months from when he fled Afghanistan. And now, a couple of weeks ago, I saw the same shots in the news. It was exactly the same things going on. Which saddened me, but to Amin it’s really a tragedy. It’s been tough for him—it reminds him about everything that happened back then, and he now sees a whole new generation of young Afghans being pushed out of a country and who are going to be in the same limbo he was in for years and not having the opportunity to choose what to do with their lives. It’s just heartbreaking to see that it’s all starting over.

Two of your executive producers are well-known actors, Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. What is their role in all this?

They came on quite late in the process, just before we had our premiere in Sundance. And it was really our sales agent who came up with the idea to do an English-language version of the film. I was in doubt at the beginning, because I think the fact that it’s the real voice behind the animation is kind of key to the story. But what she said, and which I agree on, is that if we have some big-name actors on the English-language version, it will make sure that it reaches a broader audience—people who don’t necessarily want to see films with subtitles, and people who go to films with big-name actors in them. [Neon will release the original-language version in the United States.] This story is so important, so if we can have an even broader audience, we should do that. Riz was our top priority from the beginning to have as the voice of Amin. It took a while, but when we reached him and he saw the film, he was keen on doing it. Also, representation is a big deal for him—he fights for that, and having this kind of story out there is important to him.

News Stories