Surprise Hit ‘Flee’ Tells Human Story of Refugees

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An Oscar-nominated Danish documentary chronicling a gay Afghan refugee’s perilous journey to Europe tries to show that being a refugee is what happens to you, not who you are, its director told AFP.

“Flee,” an animated film which is up for three Academy Awards, is in the spotlight ahead of Sunday’s Oscars ceremony as the world witnesses another mass exodus, the millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country.

“I really hope that we can give some nuance and some perspective,” director Jonas Poher Rasmussen told AFP in an interview held on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Being a refugee is not an identity. It’s a circumstance of life.”

In 2015, “we had Syrian refugees on the highways here in Denmark, and all over Europe. And I felt a need to give these people a human face,” he said.

The idea for the documentary stemmed from a conversation between the 40-year-old director and his childhood friend, dubbed “Amin” in the movie to protect his identity.

Amin arrived as a teenage refugee in Rasmussen’s small village near Copenhagen in 1996.

“The story is told from inside a friendship,” Rasmussen said. In the beginning, “I didn’t think about making a political film.” But his perspective changed over the 10 years between the film’s conception and the start of production.

Combining 2D, sketch animation and archive newsreel footage, “Flee” is as much a reflection on the agony of a refugee’s flight as the universal theme of man’s quest for a place in the world.

“I think people can really relate to the universality of the story,” Rasmussen said. “Most people at some point of their life look for that place where they feel they can be, honestly, who they are.”

The film also evokes parallels with the Taliban’s seizure of power again in Afghanistan last summer.

As a young boy and teenager in the 1980s and 1990s, Amin donned his sister’s dresses and later fantasized about secret crushes, such as Hollywood muscleman Jean-Claude Van Damme.

But he was not able to freely express his homosexuality.

His situation grew even more untenable with the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan in 1990s.

“It’s really a story about someone who’s had to flee himself all his life,” said Rasmussen. It is “about looking for a place in the world where you can be who you are, with everything that entails, with your sexuality, with your past, and everything else.”

Amin spent years not daring to speak about his past and his secrets, building up walls that prevented him from opening up to others.

Now married, he is thrilled that animation allowed him to tell his story incognito, without everyone he meets having to know his personal traumas and his innermost secrets, the director said.

“Flee,” which won the Sundance festival’s jury prize, has been nominated for three Academy Awards: best international film, best documentary, and best animated feature.

Ironically, Denmark is known for its ultra-restrictive immigration policy, even if it has eased its curbs during the Ukraine crisis.

Rasmussen said he was surprised by the success of “Flee.”

A former radio documentary-maker, he has made several other films, but the success enjoyed by his Danish contemporaries Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg has thus far eluded him.

This is his international breakthrough.

“At the beginning … our criteria for success was going to be a national TV broadcast here (in Denmark). And then the project grew and grew and grew and all of a sudden here we are with three nominations for the Academy Awards,” Rasmussen said.



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