Interview: Jonas Poher Rasmussen Discusses Giving a Human Face to Refugees With ‘Flee’

Courtesy of NEON

One of the year’s most talked about and celebrated films is Flee, an animated documentary from Denmark. Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the film recounts the experiences of Amin Nawabi, a refugee whose family left Afghanistan when he was young. It is a deeply personal story not only for Amin, but also for Rasmussen, lifelong friends who first met as teenagers on the way to school.

Rasmussen, who has directed several previous short and feature-length documentaries, spent more than a decade contemplating Flee and discussing the possibilities with his friend. As Amin prepared to make some major life decisions, including job prospects and marriage, he finally agreed to sit down and tell his story. Animation allowed him to maintain his anonymity, not for legal reasons, but so that he can continue to live his life in peace. As Rasmussen has stated in multiple Q&As, guarding Amin’s identity protects him from curious moviegoers. “It’s not small talk to him, it’s his life,” Rasmussen says.

Following its premiere at Sundance in January, Flee won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentaries and was soon after purchased by Neon. It has gone on to win a number of additional festival awards around the world and has been cited by many organizations including the National Board of Review, International Documentary Association, HCA, and BIFA. The film was released by Neon just last week and is eligible for a number of Academy Awards including Animated Feature, Documentary Feature, International Feature (Denmark) and Best Picture.

I recently spoke with the director about Flee, his visual inspirations, and what this film helped him understand about the experiences of refugees. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Courtesy of NEON

Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: You’ve already talked a lot over the last year about how Flee came about, so I’d like to start by asking how your experience has been since it premiered at Sundance?

Jonas Poher Rasmussen: It’s really exciting that people are curious and want to talk about it. You know, you work on something for years and years to just have it out there and reach an audience and journalists, it’s quite spectacular. I haven’t experienced anything like this before, so I’m enjoying it.

KP: I know for the purpose of keeping him anonymous, Amin has not appeared at any of these events, but have you talked to him about the reception the film has been getting?

JPR: Oh, yeah, we’re in touch all the time. I wrote with him, like, today and yesterday. So we’re in touch all the time. I try to keep him updated on what’s going on with the film. And of course, a lot of it is is online as well, so he also keeps track of what’s going on. It’s overwhelming to him as well as it is for me, the reception. But it’s amazing that the story really resonates with people across the world.

KP: It really does, and it seems to have come at just the right time. Can you just talk about your experience of helping tell this particular story and why it’s so relevant and important today?

JPR: I think it’s been relevant throughout history. There’s always been refugees, and now it’s extremely relevant because of what’s going on in Afghanistan, in the Middle East and places in South America as well, and in Asia. But I think it started out as me just being curious about my friend’s story. I’ve known him since I was 15 years old, and I was curious about how he’d gotten to my hometown in Denmark.

Then the refugee crisis in Europe hit in 2015 and my perspective kind of changed. I thought, okay, maybe because I’m telling this story from the inside of a friendship, I’m able to give a human face to the refugee story. Because a lot of time refugees are just described by what they need. They need something. But here, I could give it a new lens and say that being a refugee is not an identity. It’s something you go through, it’s a situation, it’s a life circumstance. And Amin is so much more. He’s an academic, he’s a husband, he’s a cat owner, house owner, all these things. When you lose that, you lose perspective on what’s going on. So in the process of making the film, I realized this is really about giving refugees a human face.

KP: How long did it take to record your interviews with Amin?

JPR: I think between three and four years.

KP: As he would talk about his experiences — things that you hadn’t even heard before — what were some of your thoughts and emotions listening to your friend tell his story?

JPR: I expected quite harrowing things. Because there were these rumors going around at school already back then when I met him about what he had experienced. I kind of I thought I was gonna hear really bad things. So what actually moved me the most was to understand how much these things affected him still, and how much it affected him in every day of his life and everything he’s done in his life, and how much burden it is to carry these things around. Keeping a secret is really difficult and the fact that he felt he had to keep a distance to everyone because he was afraid of getting exposed, I think that was really the biggest realization for me in the process of making the film.

KP: What’s something that surprised you in a positive way?

JPR: What surprised me was how much I could I could relate to his story. Like that we listened to the same Swedish pop music and watched the same Jean-Claude Van Damme films — with different perspectives on it. But I think how alike our lives had been up to a certain point. And I could really identify with his childhood.

KP: When you decided this film would be animated, what were some of the references, other films and materials that you used as a reference point for the look?

JPR: First of all, just the fact that this could be done, that you could do an animated documentary, I saw Waltz With Bashir, the Israeli animated doc back in the late zeroes, I think 2009. That’s where I thought okay, but this can actually be done? Then I found a bunch of other animated docs, mostly short animated docs. And then it was really a collaboration with my art director, Jess Nicholls, about finding the initial style of the film, picking out what does life look like in the film? What do the colors look like in the film compositions? We were very inspired by a lot of visual artists like Edward Hopper, and Ricky Metzger. Alexander Gronsky. But it was it was a slow process of finding a visual style that felt like it paid tribute to the testimony given to us by Amin.

KP: How did the decision come about to also animate him sitting for your interviews too, in addition to visualizations of his story?

JPR: The reason is that this is very much a story about sharing. The act of sharing and getting something off your chest. So we had to see him tell the story to me. Because what was really hard for him all these years where he carried it around, was to not be able to share. So I think this act of sharing needed to be in the film from the very beginning.

KP: Flee is being distributed by Neon. How has it been working with them?

JPR: I feel in such good hands with Neon. I couldn’t ask for anyone better. I’ve done small features in Denmark before, so this is a new world to me. But I feel like I really am with the best.

KP: It is Oscar season, and the film was selected as the Denmark’s official submission for International Feature. But it’s also a contender for animated feature, for documentary feature, and there’s chance it could become the first documentary ever nominated for Best Picture. Do you think about those things at all?

JPR: I of course think about it. But I try not to think about it too much. Because it’s just… it feels crazy. I try not to think about too much and just take one day at a time. So many things are going on right now, so I just look at what’s next. And then we’ll see where it ends.

KP: How did the experience of bringing Amin’s story to the world affect you personally?

JPR: It really made me appreciate my own home more. The fact that I have a place where I feel safe and where I can stay. And also, it helped me realize how much people can carry around, that you don’t see, that affects every day of their life. I think those two were really the main things I took away from making the film.

We would like to thank Jonas Poher Rasmussen for speaking with us.

Flee is distributed by NEON and is now in theaters.


Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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