'Flee' is a candid documentary that uses animation to tell an Afghan refugee's harrowing story

Creator Jonas Poher Rasmussen talks to Mic about the power of the film's unconventional style.


There’s little precedent for Danish documentary filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, the tale of Afghan refugee Amin Nawadi, because documentaries aren’t typically thought of in terms of animation. What springs to mind immediately is Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir; and the filmography of Keith Maitland, who typically either incorporates animation into his films (as in The Eyes of Me, Dear Mr. Brody) or animates them from start to finish (as in Tower, his masterpiece). That’s about all. It is otherwise exceedingly rare for documentaries to reject live action verisimilitude in favor of animation’s artifice.

But Flee couldn’t have been made any other way. The film spotlights Amin, who escaped from Kabul with his family in the 1990s at the onset of the Taliban’s rise to dominance during the Afghan Civil War; Russian forces had vacated the land in 1989, leaving the Republic of Afghanistan and the Mujahideen to clash in the resultant power vacuum. To make Flee using the traditional format of talking heads and archival footage, or to shoot it as a dramatized biopic, would have robbed the film of its resonance — and Amin of the right to recount his own story. Authorship matters.

So does identity. “Amin” is a pseudonym. It’s the first layer of insulation against public scrutiny, or possibly worse. The second, of course, is Flee’s medium. “One thing was that the animation enabled Amin to be anonymous, which was crucial to free him to share his story,” Rasmussen tells Mic. Had Amin participated in Flee without such invisibility, he would have inevitably been roped into the movie’s press cycle, beginning at its Sundance premiere and continuing now, in the nascent stages of 2021’s awards season. That’s a lot of weight to place on what’s essentially a confessional movie.

It isn’t just a confessional for the audience, either. The revelations Amin makes in Flee were as new to Rasmussen during production as they are for those seeing the documentary for the first time. Twenty-five years – that’s how long the pair have known each other. Amin kept the full truth of his harrowing journey from Afghanistan through Russia and ultimately to Denmark secret for most of that time, too. If Amin’s reluctance to open up to such a long acquaintance isn’t proof of childhood demons, then what is?

Trust plays a key role in Rasmussen and Amin’s friendship. “I think because we were friends, I was able to create a safe space around him where he felt that it was okay to share the story,” Rasmussen says. “I think we spent the first year and a half seeing if this would work during these interviews and him sharing the story, and he always had the possibility to say, ‘This doesn't work. I can’t do this.’” The result of that safety is a candid testimonial quality nestled at Flee’s heart, and when Rasmussen frames the movie in those terms – as testimony – he truly means it.

“We could use animation to be honest to the emotion he has inside instead of trying to be realistic to what things look like.”

Animation became fundamental to Flee’s function as a documentary, as Amin’s personal account of his refugee experiences, as art therapy, and as a buffer separating him from strangers’ attention. “The fact that he didn't have to be public and wouldn't have a public eye [on him], and wouldn't have to face people afterwards who would want to small talk about his past was really key to open up the story,” Rasmussen points out. “But also, because it's a story that deals with memory and trauma, with animation we were able to be a lot more expressive and surreal.” Using the spark of animation to fill the gaps in Amin’s memory and to transport viewers into his world adds a vitality to Flee that live action would lack.

Rather than attempt to portray events as authentically as possible, Rasmussen and his animators instead weave archival footage of Kabul with Amin in Rotoscoped form as an adult and as a child, recreating his memories and stirring up feelings. There’s joy, as Amin recalls his happier days before the Taliban takeover, gamboling through Kabul’s streets wearing his sister’s dress while blaring a-ha’s “Take on Me” in his headphones; and claustrophobic terror, as he talks about huddling in the belly of a rickety old boat on a perilous voyage across the Baltic Sea, out of the fire and into icy, forbidding waters. Imagine that latter scene as a live action reenactment, with cast members performing misery on a set; the realism makes the image concrete to the film’s detriment. “It detaches from his story,” explains Rasmussen, “whereas with animation, you have to put a little more of yourself into it.”

In other words, animation asks its audience to invest in Flee to an extent that live action simply can’t. You have to make the connective tissue necessary for processing the reality of Amin’s story. A live action version of the movie would leave nothing on the boat to the imagination. As presented in Flee, you must unpack what’s on screen yourself to fully appreciate what Rasmussen and Amin convey. Together, they ask their viewers to participate in their storytelling on a minor, but no less meaningful, scale. It’s a sign of their trust in the audience.

For him, animation was the tool he needed to crystallize Amin’s testament. “It felt more honest to animate this than to recreate it with a camera,” states Rasmussen. “All of the things that take place in Afghanistan in the 80s and 90s, we could really be precise in how we wanted to show it. We could take all the archival footage that we had in the film directly from the archive into the animation.” Ultimately Rasmussen and his animators were able to depict Kabul, the Baltic Sea, even contemporary Copenhagen with a greater candor; most of all they were able to express Amin’s emotions through animation when telling his story became too much of an ordeal. “We could use animation to be honest to the emotion he has inside instead of trying to be realistic to what things look like,” says Rasmussen.

Realism does apply to historical details, of course. Much of Flee takes place in the past; Rasmussen sees animation as a tool to, as he puts it, “revive” Afghanistan — whether from the 1980s or 1990s, and whether Kabul or Amin’s childhood home. In this movie, animation isn’t just an aesthetic choice, but a logistical one that underscores the documentary’s limitations. That wasn’t Rasmussen’s goal, of course; he needed a means of articulating Amin’s extraordinary narrative without either fudging details or compromising Amin’s welfare. Animation served his multifaceted purposes perfectly. But Flee is a reminder that, in the end, not all documentaries must look the same – and that speaking truth is as much about fact as it is about sensation.