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Writer-director Jonas Poher Rasmussen met “Amin” — the pseudonymous subject of his animated feature documentary Flee — when he was 15 and the pair were in school in a Danish village. It wasn’t until they were adults that Amin, preparing to marry his husband, shared his extraordinary escape from Afghanistan as a child refugee, which led to the making of this intimate story of his life.
Selected to represent Denmark in the international feature Oscar race ahead of its Dec. 3 release through Neon and Participant, Flee already has won numerous festival awards, including the Cristal for best feature at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival and the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It could become the first movie to be nominated for best feature documentary, best international feature and best animated feature — and could also make history as the first doc nominated for best picture.
Amin, who shares a screenplay credit with Rasmussen, spent five years on the run after fleeing Afghanistan, including a harrowing journey on foot and by boat. “He grew up in Kabul in a loving home, and then everything was torn to pieces as Russia withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over,” Rasmussen says. “It started out being a refugee story about trying to find a place in the world where you can be who you are with everything that entails. It’s basically a story about trying to find a home.”
Amin initially balked at Rasmussen’s idea to make a movie about his experience. But then came the idea to create an animated film, primarily to tell the story while still giving Amin his privacy. “As it is a story about memory and trauma, the animation enabled us to be more expressive,” Rasmussen explains. “When [Amin, as onscreen narrator] dives into these [traumatic and difficult] memories, the animation becomes more surreal and expressive. We tried to stay true to the emotion rather than being realistic [about] what happened.” The film also includes archival footage that depicts Afghanistan in the ’80s and Moscow in the ’90s “to remind people that this is not fiction.”
Rasmussen received help on the international co-production from Oscar-nominated actor Riz Ahmed, who joined the project as an executive producer and voiced Amin in the English-language version. “When I saw it, it blew my mind,” Ahmed recalls. “Not only was it an important and profoundly moving story, it was told in an exceptionally creative way. At my [production] company, Left Handed, that’s what we are all about: fresh stories told in a fresh way. Coming on board was a no-brainer.”
As to what he hopes viewers will take away from the movie, Ahmed says, “I hope they will be reminded of the humanity behind words that they only see in headlines such as ‘Afghan’ or ‘refugee.’ These words and the debates around them can be divisive, but I think this film reminds us of the core of humanity that we all share underneath our so-called differences. This fulfills the highest calling of storytelling, which is to remind us through the force of its imagination that there is no ‘us and them,’ only ‘us.’ “
“I really hope it gives some perspective on what is going on right now,” adds Rasmussen. “I’ve worked on this film for so many years … and now you just see on the news [that] the same thing [is still] happening. I hope that people will be able to relate to the stories that refugees bring with them [and have] a little bit of understanding of how it affects them in their everyday.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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