Jake Cunningham spoke with Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the director of the incredible animated documentary Flee, about working with the animators, telling his friend’s story and what makes this film so remarkably unique.
I want to start by asking you about Amin. His story is one that is unique, but one that is already connecting with many people worldwide. So what makes Flee a very specific and, at the same time, very global story in both its narrative and its form?
I think it’s because it’s told from the inside of a friendship. We're exposed to a lot of refugee stories all the time. And I know Amin’s story is harrowing, but he was lucky, a lot of people are in a much worse situation than he was. I think the reason people are able to connect to his story, specifically, is because I didn't say to myself ‘I want to do a refugee story’ and then went out and found a refugee. I wanted to tell this story because he’s my friend whom I've known since I was 15. So my curiosity really came from having a friend who had this hidden past. Then, during the process of making the film, I realised that by telling the story from the perspective of a friendship I could maybe give a bit of nuance to the refugee story. Much of the time refugees are described by what they need, but there is so much more to them. Being a refugee is something you are at a certain period of time, and then, hopefully, at some point, you are able to move on from that.
It's interesting you talk about giving a so-called human face to his plight, but of course, Amin’s face is animated in the film. There's anonymity to him. So how does the anonymity of animation play into making the story more accessible? What does the form allow you to do?
I think we're exposed to so many of these kinds of stories all the time, in the news, in the media, in our online news feeds, and I think it's hard to relate to a human face that is suffering. People become desensitised and block things out. I think that the animation enables audiences to start to listen to what he's actually saying. It eases you into his story and allows you to drop your defences, making you more open to the unfolding narrative before you.
Can you speak about what you think that kind of mercurial quality is in Amin's voice that makes it so captivating?
First of all, he's a good storyteller. He’s so detailed, like when he describes his brother, he says, ‘He always had dirty hands,' which instantly gives him personality. He also trusts me, because we've known each other for 25 years, so in his voice, you can hear he's not trying to hide things; you get the sense that this is an open testimony and the memories are just flowing from him. Secondly, I think it also comes from the technique I learned from my background in radio, where I ask him to close his eyes and speak in the present tense. It comes from the fact that in radio you don't have images, so you need your subject to be really descriptive in their way of talking. By having him lying down, talking in the present tense, you create presence in the voice and everything feels more current. When we started to talk about a certain memory, I would always start out by asking him about the location and to be very descriptive about it. So he would describe the location he was in, which gave the animators a lot of detail to work from, but it also brought him back to the situation. Instead of just retelling what happened, he would relive it. New memories would pop up, things he had forgotten, which created this free-flowing way of telling his story.
I heard about the animation Bible the team had, and that there were three words at the front of it: ‘authentic’, ‘subtle’, and ‘organic’. What do those words mean for this project and how did you go about achieving them?
Well, ‘authentic’ came from having Amin’s voice telling his story, so we wanted the animation to really support the authenticity of the voice in the testimony – we should feel that in the animation as well. ‘Subtle’ was there because, a lot of time in animation, things can become exaggerated. For example, when an animated character cries, the tears might come out in big cartoonish drops but the face remains unexpressive. We had so much emotion in Amin’s voice and we wanted to rely on the fact that you don’t need much in the way these characters are animated; more subtle facial expressions make them feel much more human. And ‘organic’ refers to the fact that there are a few different styles in the film, and I wanted to be able to switch seamlessly back and forth between them without it feeling jarring. I wanted it to feel like one organism – like they all belong together.
You’ve got the news footage, the fine line drawings of Amin’s story and the chalk effect of his memories. They're wildly different, but they feel totally cohesive. How did you find that balance between them?
Well, it takes a lot of trying things out. Spending a lot of time finding references and figuring out how we treat different elements – how we treat conversations, how we treat light, how we treat colour. And then, it was going back to the testimony and the local research, and we weaved it into the animation, so it felt like it came from the same place.
'Flee is really about finding home in many different ways; finding a place in the world where you can be who you are.'
And I suppose it's about maintaining an emotional connection between all of those things. How long did it take to shape what these 90 minutes were actually going to be?
At first, I did a radio edit of just interviews. And then I did the voice acting of all the characters, from Amin’s siblings to the human traffickers, and worked on a very rough sound design for it. I think I spent a couple of months trying to shape and sharpen it. Then I started working with the editor. I think we worked together for around six months, figuring out what the path would be because I had so much material. It was important to find the right narrative journey and work out what the focus of the story was going to be. Flee is really about finding home in many different ways; finding a place in the world where you can be who you are. With your sexuality. With your past. With everything. And, you know, sometimes you're just lucky. When I started with the interviews, I was spending a lot of time with Amin, and just by coincidence he and his boyfriend were looking for a house. I thought ‘Okay, I'm going to follow that.’ And it just worked out.
Animation is so often seen as a medium that allows for total perfection, but Flee is not really concerned with that. What was the goal with the moments of imperfection in the film?
It’s that keyword again: authenticity. The audience is constantly reminded that what they’re watching is a real story. So when we do those jump cuts, or we’re moving the camera, our focus is really to remind people that this is still a documentary and to support the real testimony behind animation.
I’ve spoken with the animators about the stylistic references and they pointed to the opening car journey from Spirited Away and the lighting in Lee Chang Dong’s Burning. I'd love to know more about the documentary inspirations for Flee.
It's a good question. One of the classics would be Erroll Morris, but also someone like Joshua Oppenheimer – how he makes a topic from the past feel current. And of course, Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, but that's an obvious pick because that's also about dealing with trauma. It was kind of a key moment for me when I saw that in the cinema here in Denmark when it came out. It was when I realised that this could be done. You know, that animated documentary is something you can do.
To me as much as this film is about trauma and tragedy, it's also about trust. If you could ask people to take away something from this film, what would you want that to be?
I think you're spot on with that, there’s value in trusting someone else and sharing your story. But also, when Amin arrived in Denmark, he was given trust; he was told he could stay here, and that he was safe, which gave him the opportunity to start building a life for himself again. And that paid off. Now, refugees are only allowed to stay for a short while, and as soon as we can we send them back. So I think there's less trust now than there was when he arrived back in the 90s. I really want to show how trusting someone else creates value.
Flee is in cinemas and on curzon home cinema now