Flee: Inside the Film About a Kabul Boy Who Finds Happiness, Cats and a Husband in Denmark | Animation in the cinema

Odanish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen was 15, an Afghan refugee moved to his small village. Rumors swirled about how the boy, Amin, got there. Some said he had marched from Kabul, others that he had seen his whole family massacred. Rasmussen became the newcomer’s friend and confidant – Amin even revealed to him that he was gay when they were teenagers – and their closeness lasted well into adulthood. When they both suffered bad breakups in their twenties, for example, Rasmussen went to stay with Amin; they now refer to this period as “the harrowing summer”. He still didn’t know the truth about how his friend had come to Denmark, so he did what any documentary filmmaker could do: he offered to make a film about him. Amin refused to reveal his on-screen identity – but what if the film was animated?

The result is To flee, which alternates between scenes of Rasmussen interviewing his friend, dramatizations of Amin’s perilous journey to Copenhagen via Moscow, and present-day interludes showing him searching for accommodation with his boyfriend in which the concept of settling down presents unique challenges for someone who has spent his life racing. Aside from a few snippets of archival footage – the war-ravaged streets of Kabul, the unruly waves seen from a boat smuggling people across the Baltic – every frame in the film is animated, most of a simple and directly realistic way that matches Amin’s narrative.

“Basically, it all started with his testimony,” says the 40-year-old director. We’re speaking via video call just before Christmas, at the end of a year that began with Flee (which is produced by Riz Ahmed and Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) winning the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary section. at Sun Dance. “It had to be an animation style that supported what Amin said. It also had to authentically depict the streets of Kabul and Moscow in the 1980s rather than being stylized or otherworldly.

The joy of A-ha… Amin as a boy.

When Amin frolics like a child in his sister’s dresses or dances happily to the sound of A-ha, the mood is bright and dynamic. In moments of trauma, the animation becomes nightmarish: faces appear featureless, the environment becomes rough and abstract. “Again, it came from the voice. When Amin started talking about trauma, he spoke more slowly and incoherently. I knew we needed to see that reflected in the animation. It is no longer about reality, it is about inner emotion, anger and fear.

Flee offers harrowing insights into the refugee experience, but in places the film is playful and fun. The young Amin, an unconditional fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme, imagines his idol winking at him in the middle of a Bloodsport fight scene. Later, when Amin is run over next to a flat old man as he is driven around in a van by smugglers, the soundtrack (Roxette’s Joyride) seems to express his taboo desires.

The animation’s partial disguise gives Amin, who hides behind an assumed name as well as a cartoon face, a way to tell his story in full for the first time. “He didn’t want people to pity him or see him only as a refugee,” Rasmussen explains. However, it is impossible not to notice that Amin is not the only person whose appearance has been changed on screen. The filmmaker talking to me today has nothing to do with the one we see interviewing his friend in Flee. “Ah, my non-blonde,” he said sheepishly, pointing to his black hair and beard. “I wanted to create a contrast between Amin and me so people wouldn’t be confused.” It also reflects the unreliable nature of the story, where rumor and subterfuge are gradually peeled away to reveal the truth. “What we see on screen doesn’t always match the real world.”

He also admits a more personal reason. “I didn’t want the public to wonder where I come from. In my own family, there is a background of refugees. My maternal grandmother was born in Copenhagen but her parents, who were Jews, had fled Russia in the pogroms. They applied for asylum here but were rejected, then moved to Berlin. Being Jewish, my grandmother had to wake up every day in class with a yellow star on her chest. After that, they had to flee again – to England and then to the United States.

Nightclub scenes… Amin experiences new freedoms in Flee.
Nightclub scenes… Amin experiences new freedoms in Flee. Photography: Final Cut for real

Rasmussen insists he didn’t feel like an outsider himself growing up in Denmark, although there was one detail that set him apart. “All my friends were blond,” he says. “When I was 11 or 12, I wanted to be blonde too. And now I got the chance. He looks shy and boyish: a wish-fulfilled kid.

Flee was an emotional film to piece together. “I had heard the rumors about Amin’s past, so I expected it to be heartbreaking,” he says. “I was more surprised how much it all still affected him. He wasn’t able to connect his past and present, so he didn’t feel like a whole person. The most Traumatic for Rasmussen was sifting through footage of 1980s Afghanistan to find the right horror snapshots. “It was a tough few weeks,” he says. “I needed a lot of breaks. But you had to show that staying in Kabul was not an option. The kid you see lying in a pool of blood represents Amin if he had stayed.

In Rasmussen’s previous film, the live-action documentary What he did, he used a different kind of frame to address horrific events. This film told the story of Jens Michael Schau, who brutally murdered his partner, the novelist Christian Kampmann. In this case, the rehearsal and performance of a new murder play provided a lens through which to explore the story at two levels of reality, just as the animation does in Flee.

Both films are about gay male foreigners – Schau admits he felt “inferior” in his partner’s literary circles, while Amin describes himself as “ashamed and embarrassed” to be a refugee. The films also feature scenes set in gay bars. “I’m definitely drawn to stories from outsiders, to see how marginalized people are doing in society,” Rasmussen says. Then a smile: “I’m not attracted to gay bar scenes. It’s just a coincidence that I have two in a row. Are animation and acting in the film ways of keeping these subjects at an analytical distance? On the contrary, he argues. “When you’re dealing with stories from the past, it’s always difficult to bring them back to life. The setting of the piece in What He Did provides a natural structure. Ditto for the animation of Flee. It gives the impression that everything is now happening before our eyes.

“I'm drawn to outsider stories”… filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen.
“I’m drawn to outsider stories”… filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Picture: TT News Agency/Alamy

And it’s. There will be millions more people who will be displaced like Amin in the years and decades to come, not only because of war but also because of the climate emergency. “I hope it puts a human face to these stories,” he says. “When Amin arrived in Denmark, the rhetoric around refugees was not so bad. Over the past 20 years it has become increasingly toxic. I want the film to show that being a refugee is not an identity – it’s a circumstance that can happen to anyone. Yes, Amin is a refugee but he is so much more. He’s an academic, a homeowner, a husband.

How is he now? ” He is doing very well. He has traveled all his life and suddenly he had to stay at home like everyone else in recent years. But he enjoyed it. He sends me pictures of cats and flowers from the garden.

Does Rasmussen feel like he finally understood Amin after directing Flee? “I don’t think you can get to the bottom of a living person,” he says. “We are all under construction. I understand it much better and I understand what it does to someone to lose your home and not be fully who you are. In Afghanistan, he couldn’t be openly gay. In Denmark, he could not be honest about his past. All his life, parts of himself had to be hidden. Flee is really the story of a man trying to find a place where he can be who he is.