‘Flee’ Filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen on Animating His Friend’s Incredible Refugee Story 

For his latest feature documentary, “Flee,” filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen did not have to look far to find his subject, Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym), his close friend and refugee originally from Afghanistan. Although Rasmussen has known Amin since high school, he never knew all the details of his friend’s journey from Kabul to Copenhagen (which included stops in Moscow and Estonia) until he sat down with him at the tranquil home Amin shares with fiancé Kasper. Because he had to falsify some vital information about his life in order to seek asylum in Denmark, Amin cannot show himself on camera, but Rasmussen uses animation to not only give him a face, but also to vividly bring to life his memories, from his happy early years, to the gloomy years he spent in Russia, in limbo, to his unexpectedly joyful coming out, and to his finally getting to be a “normal” young man in Europe.

Rasmussen spoke with Entertainment Voice about “Flee,” how he finally convinced Amin to tell him his story, the journey of making an animated documentary for the first time, and why he considers this to be a “double coming out story.”

Although you’ve known Amin since he was 15, you didn’t know the full story of how he came to Denmark as a refugee until you interviewed him for “Flee.” Tell us about that process and gaining his trust.

It wasn’t really hard gaining his trust. I had that, because we’ve been friends for more than 20 years. It was more about finding the right moment for him to share his story. He was in a place where he felt the need to share his story, but he wasn’t sure how to do it. I asked him 15 years ago if I could do a regular documentary about his story, and he said no back then, but he knew that he would have to share his story at some point, but he didn’t feel ready.

When I came up with the idea to do it as an animated doc, I shared it with him, and I think that’s really what freed him up to really open up and share his story. He was really intrigued by the fact that he could be anonymous behind animation, because what you see in the film is the very first time he shares his story, and it’s not easy for him to talk about, so the fact that he didn’t have to be public about it, and that he could still keep control over when he wanted to talk about it and meet people on a clean slate and they wouldn’t know about his innermost secrets and trauma, that’s really what made him say, ‘This feels right. I can do this.’”

You use animation to bring to life Amin’s memories. Talk about how you came up with that idea and what it was like working with the animators.

In the beginning, it really came from him wanting to be anonymous. Also, because most of this story takes place in the past, it’s really about how do you make a dent in age feel alive again? How do you make his childhood home come alive again? Moscow in the nineties? How do you place him in it, and how do you make it feel current? It’s often a struggle when you [tell a story] set in the past. How do you make it feel urgent and current? Here, animation really came in handy. Also, because it’s a story about memory and trauma, animation enabled us to be a lot more expressive about these things. So when Amin was talking about something that he was really happy to talk about, we could dive into a more expressive animation that felt surreal, and more honest to the emotions he was feeling inside than the reality of what things looked like.

Working with the animators, it was a really long process, and quite a steep learning curve for me, because I’ve never done animation before and I had to understand the process. I had the animation team of art directors Guillaume Dousse and Jess Nicholls and animation director Kenneth Ladekjær and everyone around them. It was just a very long conversation in the beginning about… how do we pay tribute to this testimony that was given to me by Amin? How do we create a visual style that has the same authenticity that this testimony has? It was really a lot of work to try to find references that we could put together to create a style that felt authentic.

It’s really remarkable that you found news footage that goes with two of the most memorable episodes in Amin’s story, his sisters being trafficked into Sweden and his own journey to Estonia. Talk about that. It’s human, but it’s very seering material.

I wanted to remind people that this is a [true story] and have as much archival footage in there as possible [through which] we could show historical events. At times, he gave testimony, and he could give me almost exact dates on when they fled, when he was in Moscow, when he was in prison in Estonia, when his sisters were trafficked from Russia to Sweden. Then we would go into the archives and see if we could find footage of the prison in Estonia. He told me there was this Finnish TV crew who came and filmed them. Then we went to the Finnish Film Archive and asked, “Do you have anything from this year from this place in Estonia?” And they were like, “Oh, yeah, here it is.” We found it, and actually in the footage there were members of Amin’s family. 

I just really wanted to make sure that people felt that this is a real story. The reason why he put this out there, the historical events and everything that happened to him, is because of things that happened in the world we all live in.

An important part of Amin’s story was his learning to embrace his sexuality, which he felt he needed to keep secret for so long. Talk about why it was important for this part of his journey to be a major part of “Flee.”

I didn’t think so in the very beginning, because Amin came out to me when I was 16. To me, it’s always been a natural part of Amin, that he was gay. But then, when he started giving the testimony, I, of course, understood that in Afghanistan, he couldn’t be openly gay. Somehow, his story of coming out as a gay person to his family, it’s kind of the same as coming out to me with the story of his past. It’s kind of a double coming out story. I saw that these stories were kind of linked. The film is called “Flee,” and, yes, it’s about a physical flight from Afghanistan to Denmark, but it’s really about a person who’s never been able to be truly who he was, who he is. In Afghanistan, he couldn’t be openly gay, and in Denmark, he couldn’y be honest about his past. He always had to keep parts of himself hidden. 

Actors Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau serve as executive producers on “Flee,” and they are also lending their voices to an upcoming English-language version of the film. Talk about how they came on board and working with them.

They came on board quite late in the process. Our sales agent thought that it would be a great idea to have an English-dubbed version of the film, and to have a star cast in the film that would get it to a broad audience. This was just around the time that it premiered at Sundance. I was a little reluctant in the beginning, because there’s so much story just from knowing there’s a real voice behind the animation… This story is very dear to my heart, so if we could get it out there to a broad audience, it would make a lot of sense.

Then, we just started thinking about who would be the perfect cast, and the first pick for me right away awas Riz Ahmed. Because, of course, he’s an amazing talent, but also because he has a similar background to Amin. He’s not from Central Asia, but his parents are. Also, because of his fight for representation in film. He was a perfect match from the beginning. And Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, he’s Danish like me, so it made sense as well. He was a little easier to get a hold of than Riz, because he lives 15 miles from my place in Copenhagen. Working with them was amazing. 

It was weird, because we did the recording with Riz through Zoom. It was during lockdown, so he sat in a studio in Los Angeles, and I sat in Copenhagen, and it was really late at my place, but we made it work, and he really nailed it. He has such a great sense of emotion in his voice. And Nikolaj, I was fortunate enough to meet with in Denmark and do the recording together.

We know Amin is understandably guarded about his privacy, but can you talk a little about how he is doing today?

He’s doing well. He’s in that house [we see] at the end of the film. He’s always traveled a lot. To all of a sudden have to stay home for a year and a half, it was a new world to him, but he really enjoyed it. He sends me photos all the time of new flowers in the garden and what’s going on in the house. Unfortunately, the cat died, but they got two new pets. He’s in a very good place.