Flee is the story of middle-aged Amin Nawabi, a scholar from Afghanistan who grapples with a 20-year-old secret. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen helps Amin tell his story so it doesn’t derail the life he has built for himself and his soon-to-be husband. Told through first-person interviews, Flee is animated to protect Amin’s identity and to refresh the “queer refugee” story that has verged on becoming a trope. In Flee, Amin tells his story about being a child refugee from Afghanistan for the first time.
With the film now in theaters, The Film Stage spoke with director Jonas Poher Rasmussen about designing Amin’s appearance in the film, how Amin laying down for his interviews gives the appearance of therapy when it’s really an old radio documentary technique, and the Afghan people’s grim future after the Taliban took over the country last summer.
The Film Stage: Flee was selected as part of last year’s Cannes and since then it played this year’s Sundance, Telluride, and New York Film Festival. Flee‘s life extends into 2022 with wins at the Gotham Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle. How has this experience been for you?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: Well, it’s been long, but every step has been amazing. Getting selected for Cannes and then not being able to go and then doing virtual Sundance and then all of a sudden being in cinemas. It’s a crazy journey. But I’m really appreciating what’s going on. I’m just amazed that now it’s out there and people are finally getting to see it.
Back in January of this year, the trades reported that Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau would record vocal performances for the movie. What came of that?
Just before the Sundance premiere, our sales team had the idea that we should do an English-dubbed version of the film, and we should find some big-name actors to dub it so we could get it out to a broad audience because not a lot of people speak Danish. I was a little reluctant in the beginning, because I think there’s so much power in having the real people’s voice in the animation, but of course I got the point. This story is so dear to my heart so if we could get it to a broader audience that would be amazing.
So we started thinking about who would be a perfect fit and Riz came to mind right away, just because he’s amazing. He’s talented, and also all the work he does for representation in film. And Nikolaj Coster-Waldau because he is Danish, like me, and also because of his work for UNHCR. Later on, we’re going to have the English-dubbed version available.
Is the English dub going to be available for home release?
I actually don’t know. You’ll have to ask NEON. I think in the UK they want to have both out at the same time.
How did you decide what your friend and protagonist Amin Nawabi would look like for the animation? I’m sure the movie’s Amin doesn’t look exactly like your real friend.
You’ll see I’m blonde in the film and Amin’s equally changed. We found a lot of footage of different Afghans and put together a character that we felt could represent them in a good way. So we had a character designer who gave us a lot of different options, and we ended up designing the character you see in the film.
I was wondering if he actually has a beauty mark on his face or if it’s a creation of the animators.
It’s a creation of the animators. Things like that are nice in animation, because the characters are so simplified, that to have a little something like a beauty mark makes them recognizable.
Why did Amin lay down for his interviews with you?
He actually did that in our interviews; I have a background in radio documentaries and I’ve used this technique. When you do radio, you don’t have an image, so you need your subject to be very descriptive in the way they talk. By having them lay down, having their eyes closed, and talk in present tense, it creates presence in their voice. Every time I would start talking about a memory with Amin, I would always start out asking him to describe the location he’s in.
So in the beginning of the film, he’s in the garden outside his childhood home and his sister is telling stories about their father. Then I would ask him, “What does the garden look like? What kind of plants are there? Are there any trees? What do you see around? What does the house look like? What do the walls look like? What do you see outside the walls?” This would give us a great amount of material that the animators could use to work from. But it would also bring him back to the specific situation and he would kind of relive what happened, and he would start to generate new memories, things he had forgotten.
I know it looks like therapy, but that wasn’t intended—it’s really just a technique of interviewing. But of course I realized how it looks when we started doing different interviews, and actually Amin told me that this was going to be therapeutic for him. That’s when I realized that’s what we were doing, but it came from a specific technique of radio storytelling.
In the movie, the Mujahideen take over Kabul after the Soviet exit in 1989, and then history repeated itself this summer with the Taliban taking over as the US left. What was it like to have this story in Flee, and then see it happen all over again last summer?
Oh, it’s just heartbreaking. And, of course, in the process of making a film, I forged stronger ties to Afghanistan than I had before. There’s a sequence in the film when Amin flees with his family, and I worked on that sequence for months and then all of the sudden, to see almost identical shots from the ones I worked on on the news was just weird.
Even more so for Amin, because what happened now reminds him of all the things he went through; to see that a new generation of Afghans getting pushed out of the country and being in the same kind of limbo. He still has some family left in Afghanistan and the situation is really bad right now. People are starving and winter’s coming. It’s not looking good. It’s really grim.
From what I understand, most documentarians make their story from hours of footage. But to animate this documentary, you must’ve decided on your story ahead of time? Will you talk about the difference between making this movie compared to your other documentaries?
The process is entirely different because, here, you edit before you shoot. You don’t start animating anything before the edit is locked. I shot the interviews and I had all the recordings on video as well, but we had these rough storyboards and put the film together. It was really amazing because normally you go out as a documentarian, shoot something, and then you go into the editing room and you build your film. If you’re doing a sequence or a scene and you don’t have a close-up shot of one of the characters, you just have to work around it.
But here, because it’s animation, everything is still possible. If you need a close-up shot you just have the storyboard artist draw it. We could be a lot more precise in how we tell the story all of a sudden because you can get the sections you want for every sequence, which is very liberating. It’s also a little overwhelming because everything is possible. But it was a really wonderful experience to see how precise you can be in storytelling when you work with animation.
Will you talk about using different animation styles depending on the scene? If it was a flashback, or a psychologically intense scene, the animation changes.
We had three different styles of animation in the film. There’s one, which is like the present-day layer of the film, where it was really based on the video footage I shot with Amin when I was with him and his boyfriend looking at a house or when I was in their flat. That’s what we’re trying to mimic: the fly-on-the-wall documentary, where you have no jump cuts and you have the cameras moving a little bit. Then there’s the flashbacks where we reenact what happened with Amin’s family in Afghanistan and Moscow, where it’s more cinematic. And then we have these more expressive surreal sequences where we go into Amin’s traumas.
Here you can really sense it in his way of talking. All of a sudden, he would stop, he would slow down, and his way of talking would be different. I thought that we needed to see this as well, because now it’s not about what things look like anymore—it’s about what happened. Now it’s about an emotion, it’s about his emotion of being scared, it’s about his emotion of being angry. Animation freed us to be more expressive and be more honest to what Amin felt.
Flee is now in limited release.