Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s historic triple Oscar nominee

March 23, 2022 Danny Munso

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Oscar Lessons

Jonas Poher Rasmussen on his deeply personal film that garnered unprecedented nods for Best Documentary, International Film and Animated Film.

By Danny Munso

At the age of 15, Jonas Poher Rasmussen struck up a lifelong friendship with a fellow high schooler who had just moved to Denmark. Now 25 years later, Rasmussen is spotlighting that friend — calling him by the pseudonym Amin — and his harrowing journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan in his genre-defying animated documentary Flee. Rasmussen decided on animation mostly to protect Amin, who is currently an academic living happily in Denmark with his husband, but it also gives the tale a moody, unique look that separates it from other projects. Oscar voters clearly agreed, as Flee made Academy history by becoming the first film to be nominated in three diverse categories: Best Animated Feature Film, Best Documentary Feature and Best International Film.

Despite staying close with Amin into adulthood, Rasmussen knew very little of his friend’s story and how exactly he was trafficked as he and his family fled from Afghanistan to Europe. But in 2013, Amin confided that he was ready to share his story. Rasmussen was working in radio documentaries at the time, so later that year the pair sat down for the first in a series of audio interviews. What we as the audience hear for the first time in the film is also the first time Rasmussen hears his friend’s ordeal. “I had been curious about his story since we met, but he didn’t want to talk about it then,” Rasmussen says, “but he was intrigued by the fact that he could be anonymous behind the animation. So the first words he says to me about his story are in the film. At that point I didn’t know where this would take us. I thought maybe we could do a short film or something that could be on local TV in Denmark. From there it slowly grew and grew, and here we are almost a decade later.” While it was unclear exactly what form the project would take, Rasmussen assured Amin he could pull the plug at any time if reliving the details became too much. But the filmmaker says the talks ended up having the opposite effect. “In the beginning we were trying it out slowly and there were things he didn’t want to talk about. Slowly he became more open. He had worked so much on himself already in the 20 years prior that when he finally agreed to open up and share his tale, he knew he was ready.” Rasmussen and Amin did 22 interviews over a five-year period, but the process got serious after a year and a half when the idea of making an animated film began to take shape and financing possibilities arose. “When we started getting funding, he and I had to look each other in the eye and ask, Does this feel right? And it felt right and good for him. He told me, ‘This is going to be therapeutic for me to unburden myself of this story.’”

The further they got into their discussions, the more Rasmussen knew that animation was the only option for showing Amin’s life. “It’s a story where most of it takes place in the past, so you need to find a way to make the past come back alive,” he says. “It felt like a good way to revitalize Afghanistan in the ’80s. Also because this is a story about memory and trauma, we felt it would enable us to be more expressive about these things.” Despite this, Flee is not an entirely animated documentary. Every now and then, Rasmussen cuts in actual archival footage of Afghanistan and 1990s Moscow, where Amin was moved before he landed in Denmark. It serves as the occasional reminder that contrary to the typical animated film, we are watching a something all too real. “I really wanted to make sure people understood this was a documentary and he had to leave home for historical reasons. I wanted to remind people this is a real person and these are real wars.”

Rasmussen and producer Monica Hellström of Danish production company Final Cut for Real began looking at animation studios and landed on Copenhagen-based Sun Creature Studio. Finding the right style of animation to match Amin’s story took some trial and error, though. “Because this is my first animated film, they had to take me by the hand and walk me through the process and how to find a style,” Rasmussen says. “In the beginning, some of the first tests were a bit toony. The characters had big eyes like in Disney or Pixar films, and everything was very smooth. It worked, but it seemed detached from Amin’s testimony. So we had to go back and really create a style of animation that matches the testimony. We wanted to feel like his voice and style of animation connected.” To find it, he and the creative team put together a series of references of everything from the works of painter Edward Hopper to Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 Korean film Burning to showcase the kind of mood and lighting they sought to communicate through the imagery.

Rasmussen found that working in animation upended his usual process. For his previous documentaries, the edit came last as he assembled all of the previously shot footage to find a narrative. Flee’s process was the reverse, with animation being the final step, meaning Rasmussen needed to have his film edited beforehand. First he edited together the interviews he did with Amin in the order he wanted. Then for scenes where we see Amin with his family or the traffickers, Rasmussen recorded his own scratch dialogue before editing that into the audio as well. Then the director worked with storyboard artists to craft the shots of what would appear animated onscreen. And everything had to be exact. “It’s low budget, and we couldn’t afford to animate anything that wasn’t in the final film,” Rasmussen says. “So it was about being precise with the story. We needed to be sure this was what we wanted onscreen. It was a very different process.” The upside of this new journey was it allowed director and storyboard artists to do rough edits of certain scenes easily to see if it was working as intended. “We had quite a bit of freedom. We could chop something together and try different things out. It was fun trial and error and all of us trying to use our creativity as much as possible to make this story come alive.”

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