Jonas Poher Rasmussen joined Deadline’s Contenders Film: New York event Saturday to shed further light on the backstory to his lauded Sundance debut Flee, which is Denmark’s entry for the International Feature Oscar race. The animated documentary from Neon and Participant tells the true story of a man, Amin, on the verge of marriage that compels him to reveal his hidden past for the first time. Amin is also a childhood friend of the director.
Rasmussen and Amin initially met when the latter “arrived to my hometown when I was 15 and he was 16,” the director said on the panel. He continued, “When he arrived, he came with this fake backstory that these human traffickers had given him, and because he didn’t want to lie to any of us who asked him about why and how he got to my little Danish village he just said that he didn’t want to talk about it.”
For more than 20 years, Amin “never told anyone about his past and he was very afraid that anyone would know he was given asylum on a fake backstory and there was some consequences for him… Most of his life, he’s kept this big secret and kept people at a distance because he was afraid of being exposed.”
Deciding to make Flee, Rasmussen “didn’t think I want to do a refugee story; this story really comes from a friendship and comes from me having a friend from more than 20 years who had this secret, and he at some point came to the conclusion that he had to share what happened to him in his past because he felt kind of disconnected to his past and his present and he really wanted to get these things together and so he felt like a whole person.”
Rasmussen has a background in documentaries but opted to go the animated route for Flee for different reasons. He said, “One was the fact (Amin) could be anonymous behind animation.” That was “what enabled him to be able to open up because de didn’t want to feel victimized and the fact that this is his life trauma he shares and is not easy for him to talk about. So the fact that he could keep control over what he wanted to talk about and not meet people in the street, not being in the public eye about these things that are not easy for him to talk, about was the first thing. But then really it’s also about, ‘how do you make the past come back to life, how do you make his child-life home in Afghanistan come back alive — Moscow in the ’90s — and how do you place him in there?’ And really, it’s also a story about memory and trauma and what the animation enables.”
For Rasmussen, animation brings “new opportunities” for documentary storytelling and said “I hope that we will see more of it in the future.”
Neon and Participant released the pic Friday in U.S. specialty houses — the same day it won Best Documentary from the New York Film Critics Circle. It took the same prize at the Gotham Awards last week.
Check out the panel video above.