Skip to main content

Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the director of Flee, in New York on Nov. 12. Rasmussen's childhood friend kept his flight from Afghanistan secret for 20 years. Now, Rasmussen has told his story.CLEMENT PASCAL /The New York Times News Service

Documentarians occupy a strange social space in the cinema world. Like feature-narrative directors, they must establish trust with their stars, or subjects. But unlike actors, the subjects of docs cannot just up and walk away to a new role, a new director, a new perception of their cultural worth. They must live with the resulting portrait of their life forever.

Such was the dilemma facing Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen when he started work on Flee, a doc focused on Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym), a queer Afghan refugee who describes his flight from persecution. The situation is especially acute given that the film has two tricks up its sleeves: First, Flee is an animated film, with Amin’s past conjured up with the fantastical flourishes that the medium provides. And second: Rasmussen has been close friends with Amin for decades. Could their relationship survive the production and release of the film, which is currently set as a front-runner for the 2022 Academy Award for best doc?

Flee offers poignant animated tour through Afghani refugee experience

Ahead of Flee’s Canadian release this week, Rasmussen spoke with The Globe about friendship and filming.

Now that this film is finally being released, what is the relationship like between you and Amin?

I met him when I was 15, when he arrived in my small Danish village, all alone from Afghanistan. We became good friends ever since, and we still are, luckily. What’s going on with the film doesn’t change that. When he arrived, I was curious about his story and why he came to Denmark, but he didn’t want to talk about it and I respected that. We didn’t talk about it for 15 years! Then I thought about making a doc about it, having a background in radio. He knew he would have to tell his story at some point, but he didn’t know the best way to do it. But when the idea of animation came up, the anonymity that was provided was intriguing. Today, we’re in touch all the time. I was just on a WhatsApp thread with him.

You can’t help but think that the friendship changes in some fashion, given that you’re now the public gatekeeper to his life story.

I think that he’s very happy to be anonymous still, especially now that the film is being released. It is a little overwhelming for me, but especially him. But because we’ve known each other for so many years, he trusts me.

How does that trust work the other way? What I mean is, as he was telling you his story, did you corroborate it, fact-check his version of events?

I of course trusted him because we’ve known each other for so long, but I did go to the prison he was in, I went to Moscow and fact-checked things. Just to be certain this wasn’t … that this was his real story. But in the bottom of my heart, I knew all along that this was his true story. Everyone’s story is subjective and told through their lens, but to me, this is a true story.

Flee is an animated documentary telling the true story about a man's need to confront his past in order to truly have a future.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

The decision to animate Amin’s past is visually interesting, but there’s a practicality to it, as well. You can conjure images of places that no longer exist. How did you balance serving the demands of Amin’s story with the freedom of animation?

The animation came afterward. When interviewing Amin, I was just listening to his story and making sure that he felt comfortable. Afterward, I started to organize the material and figure out how we can make this into a film. With animation, everything is possible. In a typical doc, you shoot something, then maybe you have archival footage, and go into the editing room to form the film. Here, you start editing before you start animating. You can’t animate 80 hours of raw material. So that gives you freedom to ask for anything from the animators. If you didn’t shoot a close-up shot of a specific character in a specific scene but need it later, then too bad. But here you can ask for the exact shots you wanted.

You’ve been talking about it and screening Flee for a year. And that’s on top of the length of your friendship with Amin. Is it exhausting to be living with this story so long?

To be honest, yes. But now that I get to see it with an audience, it’s a big reward.

Flee opens in select Canadian theatres Dec. 17

This interview has been condensed and edited

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.