A refugee’s harrowing story, finally told through animation

Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the director of “Flee,” in New York, Nov 12, 2021. Rasmussen’s childhood friend kept his flight from Afghanistan secret for 20 years. Now, Rasmussen has told his story through the award-winning film “Flee.” Clement Pascal/The New York Times
Midway through Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s latest documentary, a decrepit boat crowded with Afghans fleeing violence crosses paths with a gleaming Norwegian cruise ship somewhere in the Baltic Sea.

The passage for the migrants so far has been harrowing, and most of them greet the ocean liner with joyous relief, convinced their salvation has arrived. But the film’s protagonist, Amin, takes in the well-groomed passengers on the ship’s deck, snapping photographs of the refugees below and only feels “embarrassed and ashamed at our situation.”

“Flee” tells, in animated form, the true story of how Amin, Rasmussen’s close friend since high school, fled Kabul, Afghanistan, as a child in the ’80s with his family, before heading to the Soviet Union and trying to reach asylum in Scandinavia. For the subsequent 20 years, Amin kept the specifics of this perilous five-year journey a secret, and in this emotionally nuanced documentary, we discover the story’s twists and turns much as Rasmussen did.

When Amin told him about the cruise ship incident, the director was initially surprised by the weight and impact of his friend’s shame. “And then, I had to say, ‘but, you know, I’m the cruise ship now,’” Rasmussen said in an interview at his home in Copenhagen. “I’m the one standing up there looking at your story.’”

Rasmussen, whose other documentaries include 2012’s “Searching for Bill,” is acutely aware of the responsibility that comes with telling another person’s story. Amin is not his protagonist’s real name; at his friend’s request, “Flee” keeps Amin’s true identity hidden, even as the film tells a deeply intimate story in arresting detail.

Over the past year, the documentary has garnered a slew of awards, including at Sundance Film Festival, and now looks like it might be an Oscar contender. Opening in theatres in New York and Los Angeles on Dec 3, the film has had so much positive attention in its native Denmark — a European country that has taken a comparatively hard line on refugees in recent years — that there are hopes that it may change the debate on migration.

Rasmussen, 40, has known he wanted to tell the story of Amin’s flight from Afghanistan for nearly two decades, even though he only vaguely knew what his friend went through. The two met when they were both 15, and Rasmussen noticed Amin on the train to school. As he recounts in the film, Rasmussen was drawn to the Afghan’s stylish clothing (“In rural Denmark,” he said, “people did not commit to fashion,”) and from there the two struck up a friendship.

One of Rasmussen’s grandmothers was the daughter of Russian-Jewish refugees and had to flee Nazi Germany, which may also explain why the two 15-year-olds recognised something in each other.

When they were both in their 20s, Rasmussen asked Amin if he could make an audio documentary about his story, but the latter said he wasn’t ready. By 2014, he was. Even then, their arrangement was tentative, and they explored whether Amin felt safe recounting his history for the first time and, if so, whether Rasmussen could find an effective way of telling it. To start, he drew upon a technique he had learnt in radio, asking Amin, with his eyes closed, to recount a story in the present tense.

“You’re asking them to paint an image for you,” he said. “What does the house look like? What are the colours on the wall? That gives you a lot of information that we could use in the animation, but it also brings him back, so he kind of relives things instead of just retelling them. It’s really about making the past come back to life.”

This became the structure for the film’s interviews, which took place over four years, at the same time as the refugee crisis erupted in Europe. With a centre-right government newly in power, Denmark took a much harder line than other northern European countries, drastically limiting the number of asylum-seekers it accepted and the benefits they received, as well as passing legislation that required them to hand over valuables. Although the crisis heightened the project’s relevancy, it also pushed Rasmussen to make the film feel even more personal.

“In the beginning, of course I wanted to tell my friend’s story, but there was a political aspect to it,” Rasmussen said of his determination to remind his fellow Danes of the humans behind the label “refugee.” “That became less so because the debate here was so harsh and so polarised,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a part of that.”

That polarisation continues in Denmark, with school lunches as well as laws around the processing of asylum-seekers becoming cultural flashpoints. The stridency of the debate makes “Flee,” with its intimate tone and complex lead character, stand out all the more.

“A lot of Danish documentary filmmakers have made films on refugee topics,” said Kim Skotte, the film editor for the Danish newspaper Politiken. “Those show the suffering of thousands of people, but after a point you kind of block it out. This is a much easier film to watch in some ways because you’re drawn into one person’s story.”

Animating the documentary, with actors voicing the dialogue Amin remembered, helped emphasise this focus on one individual’s story, while the anonymity made it easier for Amin to recount his past. “This is life trauma, and it’s not easy for him to talk about,” said Rasmussen, who hadn’t worked with animation before “Flee.” The fact that Amin isn’t now a public figure, “that he wouldn’t meet people who would know his intimate secrets and traumas, was key for him to feel safe.”

Rasmussen was also drawn to the creative possibilities that animation offers. While he conducted the interviews, the director noticed changes in Amin’s voice. “When he came to things it was difficult for him to talk about, you could feel that he was in another place. I thought we should see that visually,” he said.

Working with animation director Kenneth Ladekjaer and art director Jess Nicholls, he developed a fluid, darkly impressionistic style to convey moments of emotional trauma, such as a terrifying scene when Amin’s sisters are locked in a suffocating container on a ship headed across the Baltic

Like in the 2008 film “Waltz with Bashir,” which tracks Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s attempts to recover memories of his own participation in the Lebanon War, animation allowed Rasmussen to re-create a specific past. Rather than relying, as in typical documentary style, on talking heads’ descriptions, Rasmussen could put Amin visibly back in his own ’80s Kabul.

Achieving that kind of narrative authenticity required a precise attention to detail, Nicholls said. Each element in every frame had to be accurate to the time and location: the brand of pot on the stove, the quality of a sunset, even the height of the street curb. Some of that research was conducted by Rasmussen on scouting trips, but Nicholls and her team also spent a lot of time combing archives and libraries. “Finding pre-Taliban footage of Kabul was really difficult,” she said. “I read a lot of books by Russian spies.”

The film’s commitment to emotional truth extends, most effectively, to its main character’s complex interior life. After so many years telling a false version of his family’s story, Amin initially lies to Rasmussen, and he is not always kind or forthcoming to his partner, a Danish man, who is eager to get married and buy a home. Rasmussen’s questioning prompts Amin to recognise that he needs to confront his past before he can commit to his relationship, but the realisation and Amin’s sexuality itself — explored through a funny boyhood crush on Jean-Claude Van Damme and an introduction to gay bars that doesn’t go as expected — are handled with a light touch.

The film received rave reviews when it debuted in theatres in Copenhagen this summer, even from newspapers that have taken a hard stance against refugees. And the international attention it’s receiving leads Skotte, the film editor, to believe it will influence the discourse surrounding migration in Denmark. “For Danes now it’s becoming the kind of film that you have to see if you want to know what’s going on,” he said. “That’s very, very different from being oh, another heavy documentary about refugees.”

Rasmussen hopes the film will have a broader impact when it is released on Danish television next year. Earlier this month it won the Nordic Council Prize for Film, a prestigious annual award given by the region’s parliamentary body, and in his acceptance speech the director laid out his aspirations.

“When we talk about refugees today, it soon becomes a discussion about who is for and against refugees,” he said. “But I hope ‘Flee’ will remind people how important it is that we continue to turn to each other.”

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