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Danish animated doc ‘Flee’ makes Oscars history with triple nominations

an animated closeup of a bearded man
Amin Nawabi shares his story in the animated documentary “Flee,” from director Jonas Poher Rasmussen.
(Neon)

Filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s docudrama “Flee” made history Tuesday morning when it scored Academy Award nominations across three separate feature film categories: documentary, animated feature and international film.

Denmark’s official entry at the 94th Academy Awards, released theatrically in December by Neon and Participant after world premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, is the first film ever to earn nods in the trio of categories. It had previously nabbed BAFTA, IDA, Spirit and Annie Awards nominations and wins from New York and L.A. critics groups this awards season.

The distinction underscores the film’s unique blend of interview and evocative animation, which vividly brings to life the tale of Amin Nawabi, a gay Afghan academic in Copenhagen opening up for the first time about his harrowing experiences as a child refugee.

Filmmaker and radio documentarian Rasmussen and his subject first met as classmates when the then-teenage Nawabi arrived in Denmark alone in 1995, fleeing war-torn Kabul. Years later as adults, Rasmussen knew his longtime friend held traumatic memories of his past that he seldom spoke of.

A gay Afghan refugee confronts his traumatic past and finds healing in the animated documentary “Flee,” Denmark’s official Oscars entry.

In interviews spanning several years, Nawabi shares how the death of his father led to his family’s escape from Afghanistan, and how his long and arduous journey to resettlement took him to Moscow and eventually Europe. As he slowly peels back the walls he’d built up to survive during that formative time, he reveals a startling secret he’s kept hidden for 20 years.

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Rendering interviews and memories in 2-D color and abstract animated sequences, the format also affords anonymity to Nawabi, who is credited as co-writer and appears using a pseudonym. The approach allowed Nawabi to open up and tell his full story without fear, Rasmussen told The Times.

“For so long his past and present had been disconnected, and he felt like he needed to share it,” said Rasmussen. “Keeping secrets, you keep people at a certain distance because you’re afraid of being exposed. He really felt a need to not keep a distance with people anymore and to be able to connect his past and present and feel whole again.”

“Flee” marks the first Oscar nods for writer-director Rasmussen, who shares the animation and documentary nominations with producers Monica Hellström, Charlotte De La Gournerie and Signe Byrge Sørensen; Sørensen has previously been nominated twice, for the feature documentaries “The Act of Killing” (2012) and “The Look of Silence” (2014).

“We are so honoured and humbled by these three historic nominations for ‘Flee,’” the filmmakers said in a statement. “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. Thank you to NEON, Participant and Cinephil, the entire international crew, all our co-producers and financiers. We are incredibly proud to be working with all of you.”

Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells his childhood friend’s challenging story with a blend of animation and authenticity.

The film is also executive produced by Emmy-nominated actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Game of Thrones”) and 2021 Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed (“The Sound of Metal”). On Tuesday morning, Ahmed additionally earned his second career Oscar nomination for the live-action short film “The Long Goodbye,” which he stars in and co-wrote with director and co-nominee Aneil Karia.

While only a handful of films have managed to score nominations in two of the three categories, recent precedents helped opened the door to the “Flee” Oscar nomination trifecta by transcending the boundaries of academy categorization.

In 2020, North Macedonia’s eco-documentary “Honeyland,” about a remote beekeeper, became the first film to be nominated for both documentary and international feature.

Last year, the searing Romanian healthcare documentary “Collective” repeated the double nomination in both categories.

More than a decade prior, Ari Folman’s 2008 docu-memoir “Waltz With Bashir” made history as the first animated film nominated in the international (then titled “best foreign language film”) category. Rithy Panh’s Cambodian-French 2013 mixed-media documentary “The Missing Picture” also scored a foreign language nomination but, like “Bashir,” missed out on additional nods. No documentary film to date has been nominated for best picture at the Oscars.

The 2022 Academy Awards will be held on March 27.


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