Danish film director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s intimate, award-winning animated documentary Flee has helped his long-time friend — an Afghan, now a successful academic, who found refuge in Denmark as a child — by discussing his traumas. Learn more about the Kabul boy who found happiness, cats and husband in Denmark.
Before escaping to Denmark across the Baltic, Amin Nawabi (pseudonym) lived as a gay Muslim in Afghanistan. Eventually he found love and a new life, and Amin’s often harrowing story has turned out to be an uplifting, award-winning animation.
Prestigious awards and nominations
However, Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen has a confession to make: “I can’t draw at all,” he says with a big laugh. The only shot where his handiwork can be viewed is a scene late in the film as interview subject Amin and Poher Rasmussen are depicted in a New York hotel room. On the bed sits a scribble of a notebook barely to be seen in which the director’s character is recording the conversation. Poher Rasmussen drew the notebook. Animation director Kenneth Ladekjær wanted it in the shot.
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Flee had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival, was the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, received the Crystal award as best feature at Annecy, an Annie Award nomination for Best Independent Animated Feature, Critics Choice and Golden Globe award nominations, and winner of both Best Documentary and Best Animated Feature at last year’s European Film Awards.
Amin’s story is strong evidence of the high prices paid by poor people to brutal traffickers and corrupt police for the tough, cruel, and dangerous passages.
Jonas Poher Rasmussen says that almost all of the story takes place in the past and his aim was to show what Amin’s childhood back 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 both Amin and the filmmaker to mask his identity and revive his memories.
The heartbreak summer
When Amin arrived in the little village in Denmark, Rasmussen, then 15, became the newcomer’s friend and confidant. Both were teenagers at that time – and their closeness endured into adulthood. When they both suffered bad break-ups in their 20s, Rasmussen went to stay with Amin. This period is now referred to as “the heartbreak summer”. Rasmussen still don’t know the whole truth about how his friend came to Denmark.
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A story of memories and trauma
Rasmussen and Amin held the first interviews in 2014 and recorded up to 20 sessions over the next three to four years. The interviews in the animation are real voices from those interviews, the only difference is the way the characters look.
Rasmussen may not be a great visual artist, but the director had been making radio, TV and theatrical documentaries for years when he took a short animation course at the Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark. He was then inspired to tell the story of his close friend Amin in the form of an animated documentary.
Flee is very much a story about memories and trauma and the animation allowed the makers to be a lot more expressive visually than they could have ever been 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.
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A combination of interviews and dramatizations
Flee alternates between scenes of Rasmussen interviewing his friend, dramatizations of Amin’s perilous journey to Copenhagen via Moscow, and present-day interludes showing him house-hunting with his boyfriend in which the concept of settling down presents unique challenges for someone who has spent his life running. Aside from the occasional excerpt of archive footage – the war-scarred streets of Kabul, the unruly waves seen from a boat smuggling people across the Baltic – every frame of the movie is animated, most of it in a simple, straightforwardly realistic fashion that matches Amin’s narration.
In its core Flee is a documentary, so it has been 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.
Life of a refugee
When Amin frolics as a child in his sister’s dresses or bops happily to the sound of A-ha, the mood is bright and buoyant. In moments of trauma, the animation grows into a nightmare: faces appear without features, surroundings become scratchy and abstract.
“I wanted the film to show that being a refugee is not an identity – it’s a circumstance that can happen to anyone,” said Rasmussen in an interview.
The Kabul Boy Who Found Happiness, Cats And A Husband In Denmark, written by Tor Kjolberg
All images (except portrait of Rasmussen) by Cinephil