Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen made history last week when the Oscar nominations were announced in Hollywood, his film Flee scoring an unprecedented hat-trick of nods in the Documentary, Animation and International Film categories.
No movie has ever done this before – but then nobody’s made a movie like Flee before.
Told in a distinctive, graphic animation style, it’s the story of Amin (not his real name), a gay man who, on the eve of his wedding in Copenhagen, reveals secret, long-buried details of his past life in an in-depth confessional interview with his best friend.
The film is both the audio of that interview, which really happened, and the telling, in flashback, of a gripping, often harrowing journey from Kabul in Afghanistan, to Moscow and across Europe and the Baltic to find refuge – and a new life and identity – in Sweden and Denmark.
“It’s about a man who has been fleeing for almost all his life,” Rasmussen tells me from his basement office in Copenhagen. “He’d been hiding, running away and now he wants to reveal himself fully and be complete – I think that’s something lots of people around the world can understand. That’s maybe why the film is connecting on so many levels.”
The real Amin is one of Rasmussen’s oldest friends, someone who, he says, arrived out of nowhere at his school when they were 15 and with whom he felt an instant rapport for reasons he still can’t fathom. “He only spoke Russian and I did know he was from Afghanistan originally – maybe he was exotic or vulnerable or mysterious to me but we have been very close friends since day one.”
However, says Rasmussen, until they started working together on the interviews that became the main narrative of Flee, the film maker had no idea of the traumatic events of his friend’s young life. “Perhaps I was waiting for him to tell me, I don’t know, but I never thought to probe his past. It was only when he felt ready to connect past and present that it all came out but slowly, over a number of years and it took me about 15 interviews with him to get all the details.”
Rasmussen is a radio documentary maker by trade, quite well-known for it in Denmark. His unusual interview technique is to get his subjects to lie down on a couch and close their eyes, almost like a therapist. And he did this with Amin, who began to reveal his memories in astonishing and vivid detail.
“If he talked about his house in Kabul, I pushed deeper: what were the plants in the garden, what did it look like, what colour was the room… and all this memory just poured out. You could say, yes, I was shocked to hear my friend, who I thought I knew so well, telling me all this and that I’d never heard it before. I guess he just was not ready to tell it – you can understand, because it is very painful for him to recall it.”
The identity of the real Amin remains, somewhat remarkably, hidden, at his request. I wonder if the awards furore around the film will now push him reluctantly into the limelight? “We want it to be secret, still, even more anonymous I’d say. He just can’t be in the public eye and make small talk about what happened to him. These stories are painful and he told them to me, trusted me with them and he’s glad the story is out there, connecting to all these audiences around the world. But, even if he knows people will be curious, he doesn’t want to be known for the story of his traumas, he’s a lot more than that in real life and he isn’t the sort to be part of the commotion around a movie.”
Of course, the fact that Flee is an animation helps with anonymity – we wouldn’t recognise the real Amin if he sat next to us because he looks nothing like the human being represented on the screen. And even if the series of escapes, scrapes, near-death experiences, separations and beatings and indignities of his flight don’t apply to all of us, the animation somehow works to bring us closer to the story.
“I think that behind every face we see there’s a story like this,’ says Rasmussen. “The film is really about what is hidden. And yes, it gives a human face to every refugee and I hope it adds nuance to all the debate about refugees we are seeing in Europe now.”
Although Jonas and Amin began recording the audio of their interviews in 2013, the refugee crisis of 2015 impacted the making of the film greatly, he says. Many refugees arrived in Denmark from Syria and they were regarded with deep mistrust by many, becoming political pawns in a wider debate. “I realised that my friend’s story was clearly so many other people’s story too, and the talk around the refugees was very black and white – I felt that i could add some nuance to the situation. I could show that these people who are refugees now, they don’t need to be in a couple of years, they can settle and start building a life.”
He says Amin was also shocked by the change in attitude that had occurred since his own arrival in the 1990s. “He was allowed to be safe and to stay,” says Rasmussen. “And that lead to him becoming the man he his now, very integrated and at home here but the tone now is very different, it’s a lot harsher. Refugees arrive now, they’re told they maybe can stay but will get sent back as soon as possible, it’s very temporary and so, of course, they can’t build on their lives. Why would they work, learn the language, get an education somewhere if they’re going to be thrown out at any moment?”
Of course, the recent upheavals in Afghanistan have now given Flee a headline immediacy, pushing escape from Kabul into the world headlines. Watching the film, you might even think it was made last week, but Rasmussen assures the archive news footage and film that occasionally interrupts the animation is very carefully and painstakingly sourced from 1989.
“Seeing almost the same images on the daily news last summer, that was eerie enough for me but it was heartbreaking for Amin,” he says. “He still has family in Afghanistan and he in pain for another generation of his compatriots who are having to flee or be kicked out or having to hide and be in the same limbo he went through.”
The film is a document of a man’s life, a confessional anchored to true historical events but it is also a gay story, something Rasmussen says wasn’t originally part of his plans until he realised that sexuality played a big part in Amin’s identity, which is to say, essentially the core of the film.
“He came out to me when he was 17, so I always knew that about him and it was a large part of who he was,” recalls the director. “What I didn’t know was the refugee part. But his family perhaps didn’t know the gay part, so in a sense it’s a double coming out story – he’s had to hide parts of himself always, that’s what was key and we needed to have that in there and for Amin the film is full disclosure, you know, with is sexuality and his past, to fully reveal himself to be honest to his fiance and to himself. Getting both stories out there is a big deal for him and audiences are obviously responding to that honesty.”
Homosexuality is of course now very dangerous in Afghanistan. I wonder if, with the film’s historic showing in the Oscar nominations, the news has reached Kabul and if the film might even be seen there. Perhaps not in public cinemas, but somehow, online. Rasmussen says he doesn’t know yet but that Amin would be keen for it to show people there that having a gay person in the family is not a disaster, that it can be survived.
“As much as we in the West need to be more nuanced about refugees,” says Rasmussen, “there are still many places in the world where it’s not ok to be gay and where there needs to be a more nuanced view on homosexuality. There are only insults for gay people in the Afghan language, Amin tells me, no positive words to describe it, only slurs.”
While I’m talking to Jonas over zoom, I can see the film’s eye-catching poster behind him on his wall. I remark on its impactful style and he explains that it was one of the original sketches used to raise finance for the film, showing the sort of animation style they would use and featuring all the people who helped Amin on his way – it takes a chain of fortune and humanity to save a refugee, the poster suggests, from the crew on the ship on which he stowed away, to the man behind the bar in the gay club, to a woman in McDonalds. You can even buy a copy of the poster on the Danish Refugee Council website, Jonas tells me, and profits will go to refugees.
The film, meanwhile, marches on, a story about flight going on a remarkable journey itself, around the world’s film festivals, starting at an animation festival in Annecy in France and going all the way to making history at the Oscars. It’s put together by what the film maker describes a “patchwork of European funds” with money from all the Scandinavian countries, German TV, Arte France, the French Film Institute and Creative Europe.
And now Flee has finally found a home, in Oscars history, up the red carpet at the Royal Albert Hall for the BAFTAs and on to the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood and Highland in Los Angeles on March 27. I ask Jonas for a reaction to the triple nominations. There is footage on Instagram of his team watching last week’s nominations and celebrating when their name is read out, clearly very emotional at the end of long journey. He came back with a statement composed in the aftermath: “We are so honoured and humbled by these three nominations for FLEE. It is wonderful that Amin’s story has touched so many people and we hope it will continue to touch the hearts of audiences around the world. Thank you to Amin for his bravery in sharing his extraordinary journey and giving us the privilege to share it.”