Embedded in every hand-drawn line of the animated documentary “Flee” is a poignantly unfiltered humanism that has galvanized viewers worldwide. Spotlighting a young Afghan man crossing borders to find a safe haven, this portrait based on a real-life story combats the superficial tropes around refugee stories with profound curiosity for the people beyond the headlines and their inner predicaments.
In vivid 2D animation, Flee, now streaming on Hulu, chronicles the displacement of Amin (a pseudonym used to protect the subject’s identity), who traversing oceans and continents to reach relative safety in Denmark. Aside from the perils of human trafficking and undocumented migration, Amin wrestles with his sexual orientation, a heavy burden in a traditionally minded society.
With numerous awards and festivals since its premiere in early 2021, “Flee” made history with three Academy Award nominations for international feature film, documentary feature and animated feature. It didn’t win an Oscar at the March 27 ceremony, but it was the first film to amass nominations in all three categories.
A gay Afghan refugee confronts his traumatic past and finds healing in the animated documentary “Flee,” Denmark’s official Oscars entry.
Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen — Amin’s close friend entrusted with turning his open-hearted testimony into a sublimely lyrical vision — reminisced recently on some of the landmark moments that transported “Flee” from the casual energy of a virtual Sundance Film Festival to Oscar contender.
A Sundance premiere at home
Completed in early 2020, “Flee” was set to premiere that year at the Cannes Film Festival. But the event never took place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Months later, a bittersweet second chance emerged with “Flee’s” acceptance into the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, the first edition of a major cinema gathering to go entirely virtual.
“When Cannes got canceled and when I learned that Sundance was going to be virtual, it was a heartbreak because I was really looking forward to having that experience of a premiere in a room with an audience on a big screen,” Poher Rasmussen says. “But to understand that this film about a very dear friend of mine, on which I worked for almost a decade, was going to premiere on such a big stage, was also amazing.”
On the date of the premiere, Jan. 28, 2021, despite a seven-hour difference and while on lockdown in Denmark, Poher Rasmussen watched the fruit of his labor with a small group of family and friends. Overwhelmingly positive reactions quickly came his way. Amin wasn’t there that night but joined his filmmaker friend to celebrate in the subsequent days.
Riz Ahmed talks to the subject of Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Flee’ about seeing his life as an Afghan refugee translated into film.
“While working on the film I had a feeling that we had done something special,” Poher Rasmussen says, “but I’ve had that feeling with other projects before and people didn’t feel the same as me, so it was a little nerve-racking going into the festival.”
For the director, this initial chapter in what would become an extensive festival run was a disorienting back and forth between his personal and artistic facets. “During the day I was homeschooling my daughter, taking care of the home,” he says, “and then at nighttime I was a filmmaker premiering my work at Sundance.”
When “Flee” was awarded the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, he accepted from the comfort of his home. “We had the call for the award show around 1 a.m. local time,” he says. “I was in the kitchen with my wife, and it was surreal. Then I called some members of the team and woke them up to tell them the news.”
One pivotal element in the equation that led to the success of “Flee” in the U.S. was its distribution by Neon and Participant Media, which came on board immediately after the film’s first Sundance screening. Following a Zoom celebration with key collaborators and Champagne in the early-morning hours after the premiere, a bidding war ensued. At this point, voice actors Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau had already joined “Flee” as executive producers, making it an even more appealing title.
“I had never done that before. I was having meetings at 6 a.m. local time,” Poher Rasmussen says. “People started to put bids on the film, and we were trying to figure out what to do.” But when the call with Neon came around, the team quickly connected with the company’s “beautiful thoughts on what they wanted to do with the project.”
“They seemed like a perfect fit from the very beginning,” he says. “This was a film made in Denmark and done in Danish, in Dari and in Russian, so to see that it could travel abroad — and that people got it and appreciated it — was a boost of confidence.” A deciding factor in choosing Neon was its ability to think of “Flee” not just as a refugee story, but as a human narrative first and foremost. “Neon saw right away that this is a universal story about home,” the director says, “and about finding a place where you can be who you are.”
As part of that mission, Participant Media, the film’s co-distributor, implemented a comprehensive impact campaign centered on the global refugee crisis with a specific focus on Afghans and LGBTQ asylum seekers. Its efforts included screenings in partnership with organizations such as the Afghan Relocation Efforts (CARE) and Film AID, as well as content highlighting Afghan artists Sara Rahmani, Ajmal (AJ) Subat and Roya Heydari.
An in-person standing ovation
Halfway through 2021, as COVID-related restrictions loosened and vaccines provided a stronger sense of safety, Poher Rasmussen and his team finally attended an in-person festival with “Flee.” And it happened to be the world’s most prestigious platform for the animation medium: Annecy International Animation Film Festival in southeastern France.
“The crowd at Annecy are very much people who know the craft of animation and they really loved the film. There was a standing ovation for 10 minutes afterward,” said the director. “That was a very teary-eyed moment that is going to stay with me for the rest of my life. The film was almost done before the pandemic hit, so we’d been waiting for so long to be together and to see it on a big screen with an audience.”
The triple nominee film -- for documentary, animation and international feature-- tells the story of an Afghan refugee’s traumatic journey.
When “Flee” won the Cristal Award for feature filmmaking, the main prize at Annecy, Poher Rasmussen was welcomed into the global animation community. “Coming from documentary, I’ve been used to doing a lot of stuff on my own, being very isolated,” the director says. “So to jump on board this project and have a big team of artists working on your film, bringing ideas and their artistry to the project, gives you a feeling of being a team.”
A few weeks ago, the support was reaffirmed when “Flee” earned the Annie Award for indie feature from ASIFA Hollywood (International Animated Film Assn.).
Denmark’s support is a contradiction
Last summer, already with some hardware to its name, “Flee” had its homecoming in Denmark. The premiere took place at Poher Rasmussen’s local cinema, where he was at long last able to show the final product to a larger number of important people in his life. “It was like a seven-minute walk from where I live,” he says of the theater. “Me and my wife put on our best clothes and just walked down there.”
However, the rave reviews from the local press sharply contrasted with how divisive its central topic is within Danish society.
“This is a very tough subject in Denmark, unfortunately,” Poher Rasmussen says. “It’s been polarized, like it is in the States and all of Europe. I really try to stay out of the political discussions around it because it really fast becomes a debate about systems, about how you can avoid taking refugees in, or how you would take refugees in,” he says. “And I really wanted to stay clean on the fact that being a refugee is about losing your home and looking for a new place to call home.”
Convinced that there’s nothing to gain from heated arguments with those holding an extreme position, the filmmaker has always exalted the human aspect. But though he felt incredibly proud that Denmark selected “Flee” as its Oscar entry for international feature film, he found a reaction from Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen insincere, considering her government’s stance on the matter.
“She posted on social media about how proud she was that the film was selected for the Oscars but didn’t comment on the harsh laws and policies that her government inflicts on refugees,” he says. “I really hope that she can see the hypocrisy in it and think, ‘Maybe we need to look at ourselves first for just a second before we celebrate this film.’”
Luckily for him and the film, in his Scandinavian homeland there exists a marked separation between the state and the cultural entities in charge of putting forward the national pick for the Academy Awards. “It also made me extremely proud because Denmark has quite a strong history with the Oscars,” he says. “They took a chance by selecting an animated documentary and I’m so happy that it paid off with the nomination.”
Instead of engaging detractors on social media or the press, Poher Rasmussen has partnered with the Danish Refugee Council to host conversations across the country and beyond, as well as collecting funds for their crucial work by selling posters of the film. “I want everyone to see the film, not just people I agree with,” he says. “We have to create awareness and say that being a refugee is not an identity. We must look at refugees as being humans, and not as being refugees because that’s not who they are. They are individuals like the rest of us.”
Friends made along the way
During the last six months of 2021 and the early part of 2022, Poher Rasmussen has traveled the world to present “Flee” at film festivals or to put it in front of awards voters. From these many encounters with audiences, he shared three that resonated:
“At New York Film Festival, two young queer men from the Dominican Republic came up to me afterward and said, ‘This is not just Amin’s story, this is also our story.’ From all the things that have been happening with the film, and the glitz and glamour, to me what is the most meaningful is to meet audiences who feel seen, those who take ownership of the story, and those two Dominican men took ownership of it.”
“The same thing happened in Mexico, at the Guadalajara International Film Festival, where a young queer man came to me and said that he found it so difficult to be queer in Mexico and he really struggled with it. For him to share in the experience of Amin, of being queer and the struggle to come out, made him feel safe for 85 minutes.”
“In Los Angeles, I met an Afghan who had made almost the same journey, but the other way around — he went through Asia, and he told me, ‘This is also my story.’ Unfortunately, there are millions and millions of people who have similar stories. No matter if you are from Afghanistan, or Syria or now Ukraine, the stories are very similar in the experience of losing your home. It’s been so meaningful to meet people who have said, ‘Thank you for sharing a nuanced portrait of the refugee story and showing that we are all humans with hopes, dreams, sexuality, and that we are not just refugees.’”
Poher Rasmussen confesses that what surprised him most about this journey was the number of awards shows there are in the United States and some of the recurrent questions he encountered during Q&A sessions or after screenings. People wanted to know why he chose animation as a preferred medium for “Flee,” how Amin is doing today and, perhaps more peculiarly, why the director’s alter ego in the film doesn’t look like he does.
Just as Amin’s depiction in the hand-drawn animation doesn’t match his real physical appearance to protect his anonymity, Poher Rasmussen made himself blond in the film.
“For me, growing up in a small village in Denmark, most of my friends were blond, so when I was 10 or 11 years old, I really wanted to be blond myself to fit in. But more important, I wanted to create contrast between the two of us in the film, I didn’t want people to start questioning where I’m from,” explains the director. “I do have a refugee background a couple of generations back, but this is not my story, it’s Amin’s story and I wanted to make sure that people would focus on him and not on me.”
Making history at the Oscars
Just over a year after viewers were first moved by “Flee” at Sundance, the team gathered at the Sun Creature Studio in Copenhagen to hear the announcement of the Academy Awards nominations. “There had been so much buzz building around the film that we would have been disappointed if it didn’t get nominated. Just to say that seems crazy, but that was how I felt,” says the director. “When the first nomination came, it was a huge relief like, ‘OK, we made it after all that work.’”
Amid tears and screams as the other two nominations confirmed “Flee” had made history, Poher Rasmussen left the room to call Amin, the person without whom a single frame of the film wouldn’t exist. “He was at work, and in his lunch break he had seen the stream and then had to go back to work and pretend like nothing happened,” Poher Rasmussen recalls. “It was surreal for us, but it must have been even more surreal for him.”
“The film crosses borders, both between countries but also between mediums,” he adds. As for his time on the awards circuit, he says, “I’m not used to this. We are just trying to enjoy this wonderful, weird and wild circus. It’s crazy to be part of this. I never imagined I would be there.”
While Poher Rasmussen doesn’t discard the possibility of working in animation again if the project warrants its use, he’s currently considering an influx of opportunities.
“Neither Marvel nor Disney have approached me yet, but there has been a lot of interest and I have different offers that I’m looking at and seeing if I want to work on them,” he says. “I have some ideas about things I want to work on. To me, it’s really important to keep my personal voice. That’s where I’m starting, so if I find projects, I need to make them my own. If Hollywood is OK with that, I’m really looking forward to seeing what can happen.”
Born of trust built over a 25-year friendship between the director and Amin, the making and promotion of “Flee” has helped Poher Rasmussen revalue the notion of home, both as main theme in the film and in missing his family during many months of commitments abroad. In turn, it has strengthened the bond these two men have shared since they were teenagers.
“First of all, him sharing his story with me was the first step in having an even closer relationship, because when you keep secrets you keep people at a certain distance because you are afraid of getting exposed,” says Poher Rasmussen. “He’s done that for a big part of his life, so for him to finally be able to share these things — and not feeling like he needs to keep secrets anymore — brought us closer.”
At every step of the process, during the creation of the film and in sharing it with the world, the director has always remained in constant contact with Amin about his story’s reach. “I visit him and his boyfriend with my family in that house [where] they end up in the film. It’s a wonderful place,” Poher Rasmussen says. “I try to go there as often as I can with my girls, and they love it there as well.”
Just a few weeks ago, Neon and Poher Rasmussen figured out a more concrete manner to include Amin in the campaign via a conversation with Riz Ahmed. Although Amin was nervous, the interview preserved his anonymity using animation and didn’t ask him to elaborate on his painful memories further, but only to talk about the making of “Flee.”
“Growing up, he didn’t have a lot of stories that he could relate to, so the fact that he gave his story to all the people who’ve had similar experiences so they have something they can relate to in their life now or when they grow up, that’s very meaningful to him,” Poher Rasmussen says. “I’m trying to keep him as involved as possible so he can see how important it is that he shared his story.”
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