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Interview'Being a refugee isn't an identity it's a life circumstance'

In documentary ‘Flee,’ animation helps an Afghan refugee open up to an old friend

The film opened in US theaters Dec. 3 and is sweeping up awards; in it, ‘Amin,’ a gay academic with family in Afghanistan, tells a harrowing story that is far too common

  • 'Flee,' by filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. (Courtesy of Neon/ Photo by Morten Larsen)
    'Flee,' by filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. (Courtesy of Neon/ Photo by Morten Larsen)
  • A still of 'Amin' speaking to the director, from 'Flee' by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. (Courtesy of Neon)
    A still of 'Amin' speaking to the director, from 'Flee' by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. (Courtesy of Neon)
  • A still of 'Amin' from 'Flee' by filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. (Courtesy of Neon)
    A still of 'Amin' from 'Flee' by filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. (Courtesy of Neon)
  • A still of 'Amin' from 'Flee' by filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. (Courtesy of Neon)
    A still of 'Amin' from 'Flee' by filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. (Courtesy of Neon)

NEW YORK — I feel like I’m a personal friend of Amin Nawabi, and yet I don’t even know his real name. Amin is the pseudonym used by the star of “Flee,” a riveting documentary in Danish (and Dari and Russian) that details the heartbreaking story of a refugee from Afghanistan who, after years of living beneath layers of smothering secrets, is finally telling people who he really is.

Well, he’s not exactly telling everyone. He’s telling film director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, because they’ve known one another since middle school. Rasmussen, who has produced numerous radio and film documentaries, has been trying to learn more about his old friend for decades. Growing up in a small Danish town, Amin stood out as the only refugee, living with a foster family, and they became friends when they met on a train. But whenever questions came up about his past, Amin didn’t feel like talking.

When Rasmussen attended an animation workshop in 2013, he had a eureka moment. By employing animation, Amin could retain his anonymity, both for his own peace of mind, and also, as the story details, for the safety of some of his family that is currently in Afghanistan. The real Amin, though the specifics are vague, has a somewhat high profile in European and American academia. His being gay and visible could put his loved ones at risk.

Amin’s homosexuality is just one of the many secrets he’s kept. (I’m not going to spoil the others. Even though this is someone’s real life, the movie is so striking because it has no shortage of drama.) “Flee” is, in a weird way, almost about the making of “Flee.” We watch as a version of Amin speaks to a version of Jonas (who has blonde hair in the movie, unlike in life, because why not?) and, instead of just two men chatting, the conversation springs to life in creative ways. By the end, you are clutching your head: How can one person — one kid, really — have gone through all this? And then you realize, it’s not one kid, it’s thousands every day.

Rasmussen is keen to tell people about his own family history. His grandmother was born in Denmark to Jewish refugees from Russia. They were later deported to Berlin and she grew up, as he puts it, “wearing the yellow star.” They eventually fled Nazism, first to England, then New York. His grandfather on the other side was born in France in such poverty that, to avoid starvation, he was sent at the age of 13 to work in the colonies of western Africa. The act of fleeing is something his family knows well.

This unusual film has won three prestigious awards already — at the Sundance Film Festival, New York City’s Gotham Awards, and the New York Film Critics Circle. Though the Oscars tend to favor energetic, family-friendly movies to win Best Animation trophies, this may be a year that bucks the trend.

I spoke with Rasmussen in New York just two days after his Gothams win. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

‘Flee,’ by filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. (Courtesy of Neon/ Photo by Morten Larsen)

The Times of Israel: This project was eight long years in the making, and now it keeps winning awards in the United States. When you were in the trenches, struggling on this non-English language animated documentary, did you ever take a moment to envision its reception?

Jonas Poher Rasmussen: Well, yes! But we didn’t think it would go this far. Do you know the story of the boiling frog? Well, maybe that’s a weird comparison, but, this all did grow slowly. At first I was thinking of a 20-minute documentary, but then Amin began giving his testimony, and I realized, oh, this won’t just be 20 minutes. It just grew and grew. I didn’t realize until our premiere at Sundance, with [film distributor] Neon buying it just a few hours after the screening, how big this could get.

I know that when you first approached Amin to tell his story, he declined. But I’m unclear: At that point, did you know many of the contours of his history, or did you just have a hunch?

I had a hunch. For years he said he didn’t want to talk about his past. In high school, there were stories and rumors floating around. I only knew bits and pieces — I knew he lived in Russia for a while, because he spoke Russian. And I knew he had some family in Sweden — I thought it was cousins. I only had hints.

When you guys were in school and other kids gossiped about him, did he ever tell people they were getting it all wrong?

No. He just didn’t speak on it at all. I tried asking once and he said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Of course, he was given his cover story by the human traffickers, but then he also didn’t want to lie. So he refused to say anything.

Well, he was scared he’d get in trouble!

Yes.

The technical process of this movie is fascinating. How many hours of audio recordings do you have, that eventually became this 90-minute film?

About 20 hours of the interviews, which is not too bad. I also followed him around, like when he and his boyfriend were looking for a house, and during other everyday moments. So maybe 40 hours.

When you followed him, were you pointing microphones from the back seat of the car, or did you slip your phone out?

It changed. I tried to mic them up, or other times I’d have a sound recorder with me, and use my phone to film, or use a proper camera when I had one. It changed with whatever equipment I had.

And you shot that video just for your own records, not to then animate with any elaborate computer process.

Yes, for visual reference, for the animators to look at small expressions and details. All to help it feel more real.

A still of ‘Amin’ from ‘Flee’ by filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. (Courtesy of Neon)

I understand you took all the audio, sculpted it into a script, and had Amin read it?

We agreed he should say something if there were factual errors. The story takes place over 30 years, so naturally I had to carve my way and find a path. So I transcribed everything, sorted it all into a script and made initial choices. Then Amin gave some comments.

I initially took out the sequence where he is in Estonia, in the refugee camp. He told me that if that sequence was not there, he would not recognize his story. It was the first part of his five years on the run, and being incarcerated as a kid, for half a year in those conditions, and not knowing if he’d be there for the rest of his life was the hardest part of all. I realized I had to put it back in.

This touches on an interesting point. We immediately care about this person — and also your character, as you show up as the concerned friend — but when you are putting together a film like this, you can’t dwell on everything that is bleak and depressing. Otherwise, who in their right mind would recommend this movie, you know? It’s a balancing act.

I absolutely agree. Since this story is told from inside of a friendship, we are able to laugh at times. Amin and I do this all the time. It’s like in any relationship — if you share a proper laugh, it creates a connection. Where there’s connection, there is empathy.

So that we are able to laugh with, for example, Amin’s memories of having sexual fantasies about Jean-Claude Van Damme; this creates a connection.

Did you have other films as a guideline?

I saw “Waltz With Bashir” when it came out, and it was the film that made me realize this can be done, that an animated documentary isn’t crazy.

“Flee” does not make Russian police of the post-Soviet period out to be too terrific. You’ve shown the movie all over the world, and it is only natural, sometimes, for people to get defensive. Have you gotten any irate feedback about this element?

No. Not yet, anyway. We had some local Russian actors in Denmark who did the voices of the police and the human traffickers, and they did comment, “Yeah, this is how it was.”

Of course, I am sure, one can find good Russian cops. This film isn’t about Russian cops, they are mostly a tool to show how corruption and cruelty can affect people caught up in [a story like this]. And those are the ones that Amin remembered, of course.

A still of ‘Amin’ speaking to the director, from ‘Flee’ by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. (Courtesy of Neon)

This movie is a bit of a sensation and will, in some ways, define part of your life; you are now inexorably connected to the refugee cause. Was this something you were cognizant about going into this? Does this affect how you read the news?

Yes, but, of course, I didn’t set out to do “a refugee story.” I did not go out and look for a refugee. This all just came from being curious about my friend. It came from that positive place, and over time it changed. In 2015, the refugee crisis really hit Europe, and there were, for example, Syrians walking the highways of Denmark. That was a turning point to realize this isn’t just about my friend, but giving refugees a human face. It became important to me to express that being a refugee is not an identity, it is a life circumstance. It’s something you live through. Amin is not just “a refugee,” he’s so many more things.

The question everyone asks, of course, is what does Amin think of the movie now? Has his opinion changed over time, especially as the awards keep tallying?

He is happy people relate to his story. At first he was concerned, since he is double-marginalized as both gay and a refugee, that people would not connect with him. He was moved when he first watched the film, but he said he didn’t know if he was moved because it was “good.” I think that now, with so many people responding positively across the world, he is happy.

But it is also overwhelming — as it is for me, too. When we started, we had no idea it would end up here.

Given the response, do you think he may ever want to shed his anonymity?

I don’t think so. One of the first things he told me is that he doesn’t want to feel like a victim. When some people hear that you are a refugee, and hear a story like this, they pity you. He doesn’t want that. He wants to meet people on a clean slate, and take control of when he tells people.

What’s next? You’ve been working on this for eight years, what have you done for me lately?

Ask me again in eight years!

No, no, I am working on new projects, but [traveling with this release, and doing press] is a little distracting. One step at a time, and I hope to share some news next year.

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