Flee: inside the film about a Kabul boy who finds happiness, cats and a husband in Denmark | Animation in film

When the Danish film-maker Jonas Poher Rasmussen was 15, an Afghan refugee moved to his small village. Rumours circulated about how the boy, Amin, had got there. Some said he had walked all the way from Kabul, others that he had seen his whole family slaughtered. Rasmussen became the newcomer’s friend and confidant – Amin even came out to him as gay when they were teenagers – and their closeness endured into adulthood. When they both suffered bad break-ups in their 20s, for instance, Rasmussen went to stay with Amin; they refer to that period now as “the heartbreak summer”. He still didn’t know the truth about how his friend came to Denmark, though, so he did what any documentarist might do: he proposed making a film about him. Amin refused to reveal his identity on screen – but what if the film were animated?

The result is Flee, which alternates between scenes of Rasmussen interviewing his friend, dramatisations of Amin’s perilous journey to Copenhagen via Moscow, and present-day interludes showing him househunting 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.

“Fundamentally, everything came from his testimony,” says the 40-year-old director. We are speaking via video call just before Christmas, at the end of a year that began with Flee (which is executive-produced by Riz Ahmed and the Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) winning the Grand Jury prize in the documentary section at Sundance. “It had to be a style of animation that supported what Amin said. It also had to represent authentically the streets of Kabul and Moscow in the 1980s rather than being stylised or otherworldly.”

The joy of A-ha … Amin as a boy.
The joy of A-ha … Amin as a boy.

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 nightmarish: faces appear without features, surroundings become scratchy and abstract. “Again, that came from the voice. When Amin started to talk about trauma, he spoke more slowly and incoherently. I knew we needed to see that reflected in the animation. It’s not about the reality any more, it’s about the emotion inside, the anger and fear.”

Flee provides harrowing glimpses into the refugee experience but in places the movie is playful and funny. The young Amin, a devout fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme, imagines his idol winking at him in the middle of a fight scene from Bloodsport. Later, when Amin is squashed next to a dishy older man while being driven in a van by people smugglers, the soundtrack (Joyride by Roxette) seems to be expressing his taboo desires.

The partial disguise of animation gives Amin, who is hiding 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 to see him only as a refugee,” Rasmussen explains. It’s impossible not to notice, though, that Amin isn’t the only person whose appearance has been altered on screen. The film-maker talking to me today looks nothing like the one who is shown interviewing his friend in Flee. “Ah, my non-blondness,” he says sheepishly, gesturing to his dark hair and beard. “I wanted to create a contrast between Amin and me so that people weren’t confused.” It also reflects the story’s unreliable nature, where rumour and subterfuge are gradually peeled away to reveal the truth. “What we’re seeing on screen doesn’t always match up with the real world.”

He confesses to a more personal reason, too. “I didn’t want the audience to question where I’m from. In my own family, there is a refugee background. My maternal grandmother was born in Copenhagen but her parents, who were Jewish, had fled Russia in the pogroms. They applied for asylum here but were rejected, then moved on to Berlin. Being Jewish, my grandmother had to stand up every day in class with a yellow star on her chest. After that, they had to flee again – to England and then the US.”

Nightclub scenes … Amin experiencing new freedoms in Flee.
Nightclub scenes … Amin experiencing new freedoms in Flee. Photograph: Final Cut for Real

Rasmussen insists that he didn’t feel like an outsider himself during his childhood in Denmark, though there was one detail that set him apart. “All my friends were blond,” he says. “At 11 or 12, I wanted to be blond, too. And now I had the chance.” He looks bashful and boyish: a kid who made his wish come true.

Flee was an emotional film to piece together. “I’d heard the rumours about Amin’s past so I expected it to be harrowing,” he says. “I was more surprised by how much it all still affected him. He wasn’t able to connect his past and his present so he didn’t feel like a whole person.” The most traumatic part for Rasmussen was sifting through footage from 1980s Afghanistan to find just the right snapshots of horror. “That was a tough few weeks,” he says. “I needed a lot of breaks. But we 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 sort of framework to address horrifying events. That film told the story of Jens Michael Schau, who brutally murdered his partner, the novelist Christian Kampmann. In that instance, the rehearsal and performance of a new play about the killing provided a lens through which to explore the story on two levels of reality, just as animation does in Flee.

Both films concern gay male outsiders – Schau admits he felt “inferior” in his partner’s literary circles, while Amin describes himself as being “ashamed and embarrassed” of being a refugee. The films also feature scenes set in gay bars. “I’m definitely drawn to outsider stories, to seeing how marginalised people cope in society,” says Rasmussen. Then a grin: “I’m not drawn to gay bar scenes. It’s just a coincidence I have two of those in a row.” Are the animation and the play-within-the-film ways of holding these subjects at an analytical distance? Quite the opposite, he argues. “When you deal with stories in the past, it’s always a struggle to make them feel current again. The setting up of the play in What He Did provides a natural structure. The same with the animation in Flee. It makes it all feel like it is happening now in front of our eyes.”

‘I’m drawn to outsider stories’ … film-maker Jonas Poher Rasmussen.
‘I’m drawn to outsider stories’ … film-maker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Photograph: TT News Agency/Alamy

And it is. There will be millions more people who are displaced like Amin in the coming years and decades, not only through war but also the climate emergency. “I hope it gives a human face to these stories,” he says. “When Amin arrived in Denmark, the rhetoric around refugees wasn’t so bad. In the last 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’s so much more. He is an academic, a house owner, a husband.”

How is he now? “He’s very well. He’s been travelling all his life and suddenly he had to stay at home like everybody else for the past few years. But he’s enjoyed it. He sends me photos of cats, and the flowers in the garden.”

Does Rasmussen feel as if he has finally understood Amin after making Flee? “I don’t think you can get to the bottom of a living person,” he says. “We’re all works in progress. I do understand him a lot 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 couldn’t be honest about his past. All his life, parts of himself had to be hidden away. Flee is really the story of a man trying to find a place where he can be who he is.”

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