NEW YORK – (AP) – Jonas Poher Rasmussen was 15 when a boy of the same age arrived alone in his small Danish town.
“He arrived on his own and stayed with a family right next to me,” says Rasmussen. “We met at the bus stop every morning to go to high school and we became very good friends. Even then, I was curious as to how he and why he had come to the village, but he didn’t want to talk about it.
It would be a long time before Rasmussen’s friend was ready to tell his story to him, or someone else. About 15 years ago, Rasmussen, then on the radio, asked to make an audio documentary of his story. He wasn’t ready. But eight years ago, when Rasmussen was on a show that paired documentary filmmakers with animators, he asked again. This time his friend was finally ready to talk about his family fleeing war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“What you see in the movie, what you hear in the movie, is the first time he’s shared the story,” says Rasmussen. “It’s really hard for him to talk about it.”
“To flee,” which opened in select theaters on Friday and is expanding in the coming weeks, uses animation to vividly capture the story of Rasmussen’s friend. Speaking anonymously as Amin, he tells Rasmussen about a five-year odyssey stretching from Afghanistan to the Soviet Union via Scandinavia. It’s a documentary that brings Amin’s life and the heartbreaking plight of migrants to life. And it’s a movie about sharing a secret – a past that Amin doesn’t want to be defined (nowadays he’s a successful academic in a romantic relationship with his fiance Jasper) but feels reluctantly forced to share. It is a testimony.
By pairing a painful true story with colorful animation, “Flee” fits into the recent tradition of films like “Waltz with Bashir” by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman and “Tour”, about a shootout on a campus in 1966, to intimately render a sort of story generally filtered only through more raw mediums like journalism and traditional documentary. And it made “Flee” one of the most acclaimed films of the year. After being presented for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the award for best documentary, “Flee” received honors from the Gotham Awards, the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. This is Denmark’s candidacy for the Oscars, where it will potentially compete for best animated film, best documentary and best international film.
Rasmussen had originally planned to make a 20 minute short film. But what started hesitantly as a small therapy project has grown into a worldwide arthouse sensation.
“I’m sure Amin didn’t expect to share it with so many people,” Rasmussen said with a smile, in an interview during a recent trip to New York. “Me niether.”
Rasmussen, 40, was learning the film’s hybrid craft as he went, with animation director Kenneth Ladekjaer. The animation includes scenes of him and Amin talking. It is filled with moments when Amin, often lying down with his eyes closed, slows down to find the courage to psychologically retrace his steps. While animation can be incredibly evocative, for Rasmussen it’s more important in how it helps you listen, without distraction, to Amin’s experience.
“We are exposed to so many stories in the news and in our struggling people stream. You have to block things out because if you didn’t you would be in bed all day. But because you have the animation in between, it kind of frees you up to listen to what’s actually being said and you absorb it more, ”says Rasmussen. “There’s something about hearing a real voice, a real human voice, with extra animation. Maybe it also has to do with animation being something you’re used to as a kid.
“Running away” also took on greater significance. When a wave of migrants from Syria and other countries arrived in Europe in 2015, a crisis gripped Europe. Denmark has at times taken a hard line with refugees and tightened its immigration policies. Earlier this year, it became the first European country to revoke asylum status for some Syrian refugees, telling them that Syria was safe enough to go back now.
“I started out wanting to do a story about my friend,” says Rasmussen. “Then the refugee crisis hit Denmark and Europe in 2015. I felt the need to give refugees a human face. “
However, this face – Amin – remains only a general cartoon. Amin is happy to maintain his anonymity, Rasmussen said, although he is happy with the film and the way it resonates with others. Amin, the director says, can thus live his life and control when he talks about his past.
But “Flee” resonates widely beyond the individual story it tells. For Rasmussen, he draws on a deep and universal human experience, including that of his own ancestors. His grandmother’s family, Russian Jewish refugees, largely followed the same route that Amin’s family took.
“They fled Russia by the Baltic Sea to Denmark, where she was born in a hotel. Then they applied for asylum, but they were rejected. They went to Germany. My grandmother grew up. in Berlin. At school, she had to stand up with a yellow star on her chest, then she had to flee again, “says Rasmussen. “It’s something that can happen to anyone, anywhere in the world.”
Follow AP screenwriter Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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