A version of this story about “Flee” first appeared in the Down to the Wire of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
In terms of making history at this year’s Oscars, no film matches the three-peat achieved by Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee.”
The Danish documentary about the life of an Afghan refugee named Amin is not simply the first animated film nominated for Best Documentary Feature, which would be remarkable enough – but it was also nominated for Best Animated Feature and Best International Feature Film. The movies “Honeyland” (2019) and “Collective” (2020) were the first to be nominated in the documentary and international categories. “Flee” matched that record and beat it.
“It’s just crazy and amazing,” said Danish director Rasmussen. “This film started just as a conversation between two friends. In the beginning, I brought up the idea of maybe making it as a short documentary, and back then, nearly 10 years ago, success would have meant getting it broadcast on Danish TV. So to end this way, with three nominations on the biggest stage for film in the whole world, it’s so rewarding.”
The project, as Rasmussen mentioned, is rooted in the director’s friendship with Amin, whom he met on a train in Denmark in 1996, when both were teenagers. The story of “Flee” focuses on Amin’s eventful childhood in war-torn Afghanistan, then his escape to corrupt-to-the-core Russia, and finally, after several harrowing attempts, to sanctuary in Denmark. The film also explores Amin’s identity as a gay man, which he hid from his family during his long journey.
For Amin, the unburdening of these memories was a therapeutic and life-affirming arc for the film. “Even though he was in a safe place, I had a feeling that he was still fleeing,” the director said. “I still had a sense that he didn’t feel quite at home anywhere, that he felt restless and rootless. And so as he tells his story and finds himself, there’s something that we can all learn from.”
The animation provides a safeguard for Amin (a pseudonym to preserve the real person’s anonymity), while also letting us experience his journey intimately. In one sequence that recalls the work of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, Amin is adrift with other refugees on a fishing boat when a gargantuan cruise ship lumbers past. “Making that sequence was a real gut punch for me,” said Rasmussen. “It crystallized the way that we see vulnerable people on the news and just pass it by. And it reinforced for me that we wanted to provide nuance to a refugee story.”
Amin and Rasmussen remain close friends. They had dinner recently at the house that Amin and his partner move into at the end of “Flee.” Amin sends Rasmussen cat photos all the time, and also expresses his happiness at the messages from fans of the film that Rasmussen forwards to him.
“He’s really happy to see the life that it has gotten,” the director said. “Though in a way he’s even more happy now that he’s anonymous. For him, when he was growing up, he didn’t have a lot of stories to relate to. So this all really means a lot to him.”
The movie’s aesthetic influences ranged from the American painter Edward Hopper to Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 psychothriller “Burning,” which Rasumssen said “we looked at for the suggestion of color at nighttime.” And he cites Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir” (an animated doc that was nominated in the foreign film category in 2009) as “the crown jewel of the animated documentary form.” Seeing that documentary, he explained, “was what made me realize that telling a story this way was possible. And like our film, it uses animation to deal with trauma.”
The Oscars have been generous in recent years to Danish cinema. Last year, Thomas Vinterberg became the first Dane ever nominated for Best Director, and his film “Another Round” won the International Feature award.
Before this year’s ceremony, Vinterberg offered some advice, according to Rasmussen. “He said, ‘The day after you win an Oscar, you think someone is going to pick you up in a helicopter and take you wherever you want to go. But, no, they are not going to do that.’ He told me that it’s a very cool experience but life moves on afterwards. And to be prepared for that.”
Rasmussen is also bracing himself for the possibility that “Flee” might very well receive the most votes of any documentary, animated or international film this year, split across all three of the categories that it is nominated in, and still go home empty-handed.
“I feel very proud about everything, most of all that the story of Amin has been seen,” he said. “Everything that comes, win or lose, is just a gift now. And, you know, if we get a lot of votes and still lose, maybe they’ll have a fourth Oscar category for that.”