Exclusive Interview: Jonas Poher Rasmussen on his remarkable documentary Flee “I hope the film will give a human face to the refugee story”

Writer-director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s remarkable Flee—which closed NewFest’s 33rd New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival—world premiered in January at Sundance 2021 where it took the festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary before going on to play at Cannes. Earlier this week it won Best Documentary at 31st Annual Gotham Awards, and Flee has been named Denmark’s official selection for Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards.

The filmmaker and his subject, 36 year-old Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym), have been friends since they were teenagers when Amin arrived in their small village in Denmark from Afghanistan as a refugee. Until now, Amin has not shared the full story of how he came to be in Denmark, which is rendered in beautifully simple traditional 2D animation accompanied by Amin’s riveting testimony. Read our full ★★★★ review of the film.

Ahead of Flee’s US theatrical release on Friday December 3rd, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Jonas Poher Rasmussen about his friendship with Amin and how they collaborated to create this powerful and deeply moving film.

Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Photo by Morten Larsen.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: far too often when refugees are discussed they are demonized or politicized and at best it comes down to quotas and numbers, but very rarely do we get an individual human story like we see in Flee. To what extent was that part of the draw for you initially of telling Amin’s story?

Jonas Poher Rasmussen: “I really think it comes from the fact that it’s told from inside a friendship. I’ve known him for 25 years so I was able to develop more nuance to the refugee story. Often refugees are described only by what they need, but to me he’s so much more than a refugee and I think it shows the complex psychological creatures we all are and I’m really hoping that the film will give a human face to the refugee story.”

Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Courtesy of Neon.

As you mentioned, you’ve been friends for a long time, so when did the idea of making Flee come about?

“He arrived in my little Danish village when I was 15 and already back then I was curious about how and why he got there, but he didn’t want to talk about it. My curiosity has always been there as our friendship grew.”

“I have a background in radio documentary and about 15 years ago I asked him if I could do a radio documentary about his story. He said that he didn’t feel ready, but he knew that he would have to share his story at some point and when he was ready he would like to share it with me. So I had it at the back of my head that this was something that we could do, we just hadn’t found the form yet.”

“Eight years ago, I was invited for this workshop in Denmark called ANIDOX where they bring together animators and filmmakers to develop ideas for animated docs. They asked me if I had an idea and I thought, ‘okay, maybe this is the way to tell his story’. I met him and asked him and he finally said that he felt ready, he actually felt the need to share his story. The fact that he could be anonymous in the animation really freed him to share his story because what you hear in the film is the very first time that he told his story. The fact that he wouldn’t meet people in the street who would all of a sudden know his inner most secrets and his traumas and would want to smalltalk about it was really helpful too.”

Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Courtesy of Neon.

How about for you as a filmmaker, what did using animation open up for you and how did it surprise you in the way that you were able to tell the story?

“As a documentary filmmaker you are always searching for how to you create presence—how do you make it feel alive again?—especially when you deal with things that happened in the past, and animations really do that. We can recreate Afghanistan in the 80s and his childhood home, show it and put him there. This is really a story about memory and trauma, and with the animation we could really be a lot more expressive and be more honest towards his emotions than we could have been with the camera.”

Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Courtesy of Neon.

Tell me about your choice for the style of animation, the way that you use different styles at some points during the movie, and also occasionally some live action archive footage.

“It was really a long process of finding different references. We also took some wrong turns here and there and tried some things out that didn’t feel right. At one point we did this test and it became a little toony. All the characters had big eyes and the line was very straight and somehow it became a little detached from the testimony. So we went back because we needed to get the authenticity we had in the real testimony and put that in the animation. We spent a lot of time taking things directly from the archive footage, drawing them and putting in it the animation, so it felt like we could go from animation to archival footage seamlessly and it would feel like part of the same world.”

“Then there’s this more simplistic kind of animation which again came from Amin’s voice. You could tell when he started to talk about something that he couldn’t really remember or when he had a hard time talking about something traumatic, his voice changed. I thought, ‘you need to see this in the animation’, so we would go into this more graphical animation that felt somewhat more honest, because all of a sudden it wasn’t about what things looked like, it was about his emotion, it was about him feeling scared, or afraid, or angry. Getting these elements to fit together was a really long process, but at the core all the time was his testimony and having it feel authentic.”

Just as you were saying that Amin being a refugee isn’t something that’s a completely defining feature, similarly him being gay—even though it’s an important part of him—doesn’t entirely define him either. I loved the way we see him running around as a child in his sister’s clothes and Jean-Claude Van Damme winking at him from the television set; there’s a lot of joy there in those moments. Give me an insight into portraying his sexuality, guided by the way that he spoke with you about it.

“Amin came out to me when we were both 16, so to me, him being gay was a very natural part of who he was and I thought, ‘this needs to feel the same in the film’. In the process of making the film, I realized that in his childhood, all the way until he arrived to Denmark, he had to hide his sexuality and then when he arrived in Denmark he had to hide his past. So he’s always had to hide a part of himself. The story is called Flee, and it is about a flight going from Afghanistan to Denmark, but it’s really a story about a guy who has had to flee from himself all of his life and is looking for a place where he can be who he is with everything that that entails with his sexuality and with his past. So I wanted to show what it does to someone to have to hide parts of themself.”

Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Courtesy of Neon.

The scene in the gay club is so beautifully moving and I felt that it fitted in with the theme of trying to find somewhere that feels like home, it felt at that moment that he had found a version of home.

“I was surprised when he told me that story. He’d carried this around for so many years and he was certain that his family wouldn’t be able to accept him as a gay man, so I wanted the audience to feel some of the relief that he felt when he finally came out and his family took him to a gay bar. Of course, we use the cinematic tools so everyone thinks that he’s being taken to somewhere else, not a gay bar, but a brothel or a strip club, but I really wanted the audience to to feel the relief that he felt.”

Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Courtesy of Neon.

What about Amin and his fiancé, there’s an element of fleeing within that relationship too isn’t there?

“Sometimes when you make documentaries there are these happy accidents. When I started doing this film Amin and his fiancé started looking for a house. Being a refugee is fundamentally someone who has lost their home and is looking for a new place to call home. I thought, ‘okay, here they are, they’re looking for a place together and either it’s going to go well and they’ll find a place to settle down or it’s not going to go well and they might spit up and Amin’s going to continue fleeing and it’s going to be a tragedy’. I decided to follow this path and see how it goes. I could see the friction between Amin and Kasper because Amin wasn’t being totally honest with him. Again, it’s really about creating this human, more complex refugee story and having that in there was important.”

Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Courtesy of Neon.

Early on in the film we see you get Amin to lie down and close his eyes, which looks beautiful, but also seems a bit like a therapy session. What does that approach offer in terms of allowing your subject to open up in a way that perhaps sitting rigid in a chair in more of a talking head style interview would not?

“It really gave space for him to take a deeper dive and we spent a long time—it’s been three or four years doing interviews—slowly going deeper and deeper to revisit his memories. This is a technique of interviewing that I used in radio because when you do radio you don’t have an image, so you need your subject to be very descriptive. By having your subject lie down and close their eyes and talk in the present tense, instead of just retelling the story, they kind of relive it. You start every memory with the subject describing the location in detail. For example, at the beginning of the film he’s in his childhood home, in the garden with his siblings, and there are stories about their father. Then I would ask him, ‘What kind of plants are there, what trees? What does the house look like? What do you see outside the walls?’ That would give us a lot of information to animate from, but it would also bring him back to a situation and create a lot of presence in his voice. He would generate new memories and start to remember things that he would have had a hard time remembering otherwise. I think if I would have done a talking head interview, he would have just retold the story from whatever came to the top of his mind, but here we really had time to go deeper and deeper down.”

As you said at the beginning you’ve been friends for a long time, but how did this whole process of making the film over several years impact your relationship, did you get to know each other better?

“Definitely, I didn’t fully understand how much what he’s been through affected him every day of his life, in everything he’s done in his life. Keeping a secret creates some kind of distance to everyone around you because you’re afraid of getting exposed, I didn’t see that before, but I can see it now and I can see that now he was finally able to open up he’s a lot more relaxed. We’re in touch all the time, I wrote to him just an hour ago. We became a lot closer.”

By James Kleinmann

Flee opens in US theaters on Friday December 3rd 2021.

FLEE – Official Trailer
FLEE – Official Poster.

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