The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Flee.
How long have you known Amin? What was it like to hear the truth about his background?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: I’ve known him for twenty-five years. I grew up in this very small village in Denmark, with like 400 people in it. One day, Amin showed up and stayed with a family around the corner from where I lived. We met every morning on the bus on the way to high school and became very good friends. And of course I was curious, even back then, about how and why he’d gotten there, but he hadn’t wanted to talk about it. When you grow up in a such a small village, the ones that are your age become your best friends because those are the ones you hang out with. Our friendship grew from there and we’ve spent a lot of time together. Hearing him share the story… I didn’t realize how much he carried around. It really brought us closer together, this project. I was always really curious and he came to a point where he felt like he needed to get rid of the story, so it was a really symbiotic process.
This notion of home is universal
The animation makes this film easier to digest—it’s so emotional, with so much pain and trauma. How did you come around to the idea to present it this way?
JPR: I have a background in radio and had asked him if I could do a radio interview about his story and he said then he wasn’t ready. But he knew he would have to share his story at some point, and when he was ready he said he would share it with me. So I kind of had it in the back of my head that this was a story we could tell together, but I hadn’t figured out how to do it. I was invited to this workshop in Denmark, which is a film school where they encourage you to develop ideas for animated documentaries. They asked me if I had an idea, and I thought, maybe this is the way to do it. I asked Amin, and he was really happy about that idea. This is his life trauma and this is the first time he talked about it. The fact that he didn’t have to be so public about it really freed him up to be open. If we shot this film in a more traditional and public manner, he would meet people on the streets and out in the world who would then know about his trauma and his secrets. It would be too tough for him to talk about it in those places where he didn’t have control. So the first reason was to keep him anonymous, and then because it took place in the past, we had to find a way to make the story come alive. Afghanistan in 1980s, Moscow in the 1990s, and having him in those places. And lastly, because it’s a story about memory and trauma, animation enabled us to be more expressive about some of the things he had a hard time talking about, or had a hard time remembering. You can sometimes hear it in the way he talks, through his voice, when he talks slower. And I thought, we need to see this in him as well. We adopted a more expressive and surreal form of animation that feels more honest to his emotional state, and was less about how realistic it looked.
Did you do any kind of emotional preparation before embarking on this story? I was surprised that Amin was lying down, as in a therapist’s office.
JPR: We had prepared for years and years to do this. In the beginning, I told him, we’re just going to try this out to see if this works. It was just the two of us in a room, in my place. I told him he could always leave and say “this isn’t working for me.” Or he could always take a break when it was too much. It was really about creating a safe space at the beginning. The fact that’s he lying down with eyes closed, and talking in the present tense is an old technique I used in interviews when I worked in radio. When you do radio, you don’t have an image, so you really need the subject to paint an image. In this case, you have Amin lying down, eyes closed, and every time he brought up a memory, I would ask him to describe the location, the room. For example, in the very beginning he’s in his home in the garden and his sister is telling stories. I’d ask him, “what did the garden look like? What kind of plants were there? What does the house look like? What are the colors on the walls?” All of this would give us information that would be used in the animation, but it would also help transport him back to that specific situation and generate memories. I was very careful, it was slow, step by step, and it took years. At some point, we were looking to get funding, and we looked each other in the eyes and said, okay, are we going to do this? Amin said, yes this feels right, let’s do it. But it was a long stretch of time where we just tried it out to see if it worked.
Was there anything in the story that surprised you? I don’t know if in this country we often think of the people that come across our borders as fleeing, but it seems like a very appropriate word.
JPR: I think it surprised me how much his experience affected him and everything he did. Like every day, he brought it into everything he did… everything he went through became a real part of this life. In the ways he worked, and how he fought like crazy to educate himself and to be able to make a living. I’m not a refugee myself, but two generations back my grandmother was born a refugee in Copenhagen. Her family was rejected for asylum and had to move on to Germany. Then because they were Jewish, they had to leave again. So I could also see through her how traumatizing it is to not have a home. It stuck with her throughout her entire life but she never talked about it. I think because Amin has been able to talk about it, it puts him in a better position.
You begin with this idea of home, and you also end with home.
JPR: If you cut everything else away, being a refugee is really someone that has lost their home and is looking for a new place to call home. And when I started talking to Amin about this, he and his boyfriend had started to look for a house. And I thought, this really is the story, looking for a place where he feels he like can be who he is with everything that entails. This notion of home is universal. I think it’s something we are all looking for in our lives, a place where we can be who we are with everything that entails. It taps into something most people can recognize.
You don’t make his sexual orientation a big deal in the film, but I was interested by his line about there not being a word for homosexual in Afghanistan.
JPR: He came out to me when he was sixteen, so it’s always been a natural part of his personality. I didn’t think sexuality was going to play a big part in the film, but slowly I realized that even fleeing his sexuality for the first period of his life was similar to the way he had been fleeing his past all the time I’ve known him. He’s always been on the run, hiding something. I thought we needed to have that story in there as well because while it’s a story about the flight of going from Afghanistan to Denmark, fundamentally it’s a story about accepting who you are and finding a place where you can be. And they actually do have words for being gay in Afghanistan, but they don’t have any neutral words. It’s all negative and offensive.