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Jonas Poher Rasmussen Talks ‘Flee’

The director discusses his intimate, award-winning animated documentary about the boyhood experiences of his long-time friend, an Afghan academic who lived as a gay Muslim in Afghanistan before escaping to Denmark through Russia.

World premiere at Sundance, official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, Crystal award as best animated feature at Annecy, an Annie Award nomination for Best Independent Animated Feature received just this morning, Critics Choice and Golden Globe award noms last week, and winner earlier this month of both Best Documentary and Best Animated Feature at this year’s European Film Awards, Flee, by Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, is a documentary on the boyhood experience as a refugee of the Afghan academic Amin Nawabi (pseudonym). Interviewed by his filmmaker friend who appears in the movie, Amin re-elaborates his journey through his memories, from Afghanistan to Denmark passing through Russia; his story starkly illustrates the high prices paid by poor people to brutal traffickers and corrupt police for the tough, cruel, and dangerous passages.

The animated documentary sticks to the narration and to a rather realistic graphic illustration, yielding now and then to stylistic shades of grey - during the more evocative and introspective moments - and live-action film inserts. Released in the US on December 3 by Neon (Parasite, Titane), Flee has been an awards season favorite since it hit the festival circuit.

Rasmussen recently spoke with the author about his evocative film.

Lawrence Thomas Martinelli: Why did you choose animation to document this reality?

Jonas Poher Rasmussen: Almost all of the story takes place in the past and I wanted to show what Amin’s childhood home looked like, what Afghanistan looked like in the 1980s, and Moscow in the ‘90s, when he was there. But even more importantly, Amin wanted to be anonymous, which made animation seem like the perfect way to tell the story as it allowed us to both mask his identity and revive his memories.

LTM: Black and white faceless drawings are used to evoke unpleasant memories of the past. How does variation in graphic style relate to the story told?

JPR: Flee is very much a story about memories and trauma and the animation allowed us to be a lot more expressive visually than we could ever be with a regular camera. Every time Amin talks about something traumatic or something he has a hard time remembering, the animation gets a lot more simplistic and graphical, telling the story in a way that feels a lot more honest to the feelings he goes through.

LTM: How are the live-action inserts functional to the story?

JPR: Flee in its core is a documentary, so I felt it was important to use archival shots throughout the film to remind people that this story is tied to historical events. Everything Amin goes through is because of factual things that happened in the same world we all live in. It’s not fiction. I believe this notion creates a stronger link between Amin as a protagonist and the audience. We also used the archive as research for the animated sequences in order to keep a sense of authenticity all the way through the film.

LTM: There are instead few concessions to stylish aesthetics. Why?

JPR: Authenticity is really a key here. Flee is a documentary and I felt that stylizing the visuals would create a distance between the real story and the audience.

LTM: How can actual truthfulness be guaranteed? In which way are you reliable and accountable?

JPR: Flee is not based on a true story, it is a true story. Everything you see in the film actually and truthfully happened. But how can actual truthfulness be guaranteed? I guess that’s a question you can apply to any piece of artistic work or journalism. Does actual truthfulness even exist? As soon as I make a cinematic choice as a director, I guess I’m messing with the “actual truthfulness.” I have of course done my research to make sure that the story I was given was factually correct, but it is of course told as seen through my lens.

LTM: You also appear in the film while interviewing the protagonist, Amin. Is that to strengthen the truthfulness of the experience?

JPR: Yes, it’s definitely a way to keep authenticity. The way we talk and the way we sit is totally identical to the “real” interview. The voices you hear in the film are the real voices from those interviews, which are really the first time Amin tells anyone his real-life story. The only difference is the way we look.

LTM: At a given moment Amin must make up the story of all his family’s death, on which he actually sobs for real, “surprised to be crying over something that isn’t true.” What relation do you see between fiction and reality?

JPR: To me that sequence isn’t about reality vs. fiction. The fact that he is surprised to be crying over something that isn’t “real” in that situation shows me that Amin still hasn’t come to terms with his story, even at this late point of his life. Amin doesn’t understand that it’s not what he is actually saying that makes him cry, but instead the fact that he is lying to save his life. It’s the pressure and fear of a 15-year-old boy being all alone for the first time in his life. Fiction is something you make up, reality is not. When making Flee, I have of course chosen one story line among many, and I have left out a lot of stuff that others would have perhaps left in. But this story takes place in over 35 years, so choices had to be made and I have given my interpretation of his story. I have of course used the cinematic toolbox to create suspense and drive, but to me there is no doubt, Flee is deadly real.

LTM: How many diversions from the actual facts did you allow yourself?

JPR: Apart from the things we did to keep Amin anonymous (changing names and looks of characters, locations etc.), I did no diversions.

LTM: The Afghan issue is faced also in other animated films this year. In which particular way did you relate to it?

JPR: Of course, I have seen both Breadwinner and Swallows of Kabul with great interest and they are great films, but luckily, I feel that they are thematically far apart from Flee. For me this isn’t a story about Afghanistan, but about feeling homeless and searching for a place where you can be yourself. It could basically take place anywhere in the world.

LTM: Amin’s homosexuality is shown in a very natural way, without stressing the point. Is homosexuality still a big issue of debate in Denmark?

JPR: It’s getting better, but it’s still a big issue in Denmark. I really wanted Amin’s sexuality to feel just as natural and as an integrated part of his personality as it is in our friendship. He came out to me when I was 17 (23 years ago) and it’s not something I really think about. I wanted this to shine through at the beginning of the film and then problematize it later when we started talking about how it was being a gay Muslim boy in Afghanistan.

LTM: And what about migration and human trafficking?

JPR: Yes, they are still huge issues. Refugees are number two on the list of things people are worried about here, just after the climate.

LTM: What are your next projects?

JPR: I’m working on an adaptation of a Danish graphic novel trilogy by an author called Halfdan Pisket based on the life of his father.

Lawrence Thomas Martinelli's picture

Lawrence Thomas Martinelli is a journalist focused on animation, comic art and cinema. He teaches at Pisa University and wrote Volume II Documentario Animato (The Animated Documentary, Tunué 2012).