Flee: Making of Seminal Animated Documentary

 

Animated Documentary Recreates One Man’s Harrowing Refugee Story

A contender in three categories — documentary, animation and international feature — Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s moving account of a gay man’s journey from war-torn Afghanistan to Denmark could make Oscar history.

Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary won the World Cinema grand jury prize at Sundance and bowed Dec. 3 in the U.S. via Neon and Participant.

It could become the first film to secure Oscar nominations in the categories of best international feature (for Denmark), documentary and animated feature. Flee also is a contender for a best picture nomination, which, for a documentary, would be an Oscar first.

It all started with the voice of Amin Nawabi.

Flee opens with a scene of Amin as he lies on his bed, closes his eyes and begins his story. It’s Amin’s voice — warm and intimate but also hesitant and fearful — that pulls us in as he tells his old friend Jonas the secrets of his past.

“What does ‘home’ mean to you?” Rasmussen asks.

“Home?” says Amin. “Home is somewhere safe.”

This is the first time, Amin says, he has spoken about this to anyone. Amin is a pseudonym. His animated image has been altered. Names and locations have been changed to protect his identity. But Amin’s voice remains the same. That voice takes us through his childhood in Afghanistan in the 1980s, vivid memories of listening to A-Ha’s “Take on Me” full blast on his Walkman as he danced in the streets in a sister’s nightgown. Then there are more chaotic recollections after the mujahideen seize power in Kabul. Amin’s story becomes more fragmented and uncertain, his memories obscured by trauma — a sister kidnapped, his father, mother and brother killed — and repression. Then there is his story of flight, first to Russia, then via unscrupulous human traffickers to Estonia — a particularly grim period in a squalid asylum center — and finally to Denmark, where he is granted refugee status and where, at 15, in a Danish village, he meets Rasmussen on the bus to school.

“I was always curious about his past, his story, but as a 15-year-old boy you don’t really go into these things,” says Rasmussen. “I had to wait until he was ready to tell me.”

Running parallel to the story of Amin the refugee is the story of Amin coming to terms with his harrowing history and with his own identity — from the first stirrings of sexual awakening, prompted by a revealing Bloodsport poster featuring a short-shorted Jean-Claude Van Damme, to asking a Danish Red Cross social worker for medication to “cure” him of his “unnatural” desires, to living a settled, open life as a gay man and preparing to marry his partner, Kaspar. The impending nuptials, in fact, appear to be one reason why Amin has chosen to open up to Rasmussen, to share the painful details of his past that he has kept secret even from his fiance.

“We always kept in touch, we spent almost every New Year’s together for many, many years, went on holidays together,” says Rasmussen. “We both had long-term relationships that ended the same summer, so we had this kind of heartbreak [time] together. Maybe 15 years ago, I asked him if I could do a documentary about his story. He said then he wasn’t ready but when he was, he would share his story with me. I knew this was something we would do at some point, so I was looking for the right form to do it.”

He started with the voice.

“My background is in radio, so I initially thought of doing Amin’s story as a radio documentary. The interview technique, which you see in the film, it looks like therapy but it actually comes from radio,” says Rasmussen. “In radio, you don’t have an image, but by getting someone to lie down, close their eyes and talk in the present tense about things that happened in the past, they start to generate images inside their own head — images they pass on to the audience.”

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Most of the film’s modern-day scenes were closely modeled on footage Rasmussen shot with Amin. COURTESY OF FINAL CUT FOR REAL

Even as Rasmussen, whose previous documentaries include Searching for Bill (2012) and What He Did (2015), expanded the project, developing it as a feature documentary, he stayed fairly conventional, shooting his interviews with Amin and doing standard doc coverage: Amin driving a car, Amin in the kitchen with Kaspar, Amin arriving home at the Copenhagen airport from a trip to New York.

But as their interviews progressed and Amin got deeper and deeper into his own past, he became more concerned about losing control of his story. He didn’t want to be identified by the audience, to have people approaching him on the streets in Copenhagen asking him to retell his trauma.

“The animation was a way to keep Amin anonymous,” says Flee producer Monica Hellström. “It also helped solve the problem of how to depict sequences from his past, things we couldn’t film in a normal documentary.”

Animation director Kenneth Ladekjaer worked from the footage Rasmussen had shot, closely copying aspects of Amin’s style and behavior — “the way he gestures and speaks, how he wipes his tears away when he cries” — while making slight alterations to protect the identity of the real Amin.

“We didn’t trace the image or use rotoscoping, but we keep very close to how he was as a person,” says Ladekjaer. “It was important he didn’t end up as a caricature. [Amin] is very charming in real life. You can hear that in his voice, hear his vulnerability and his sense of humor. He’s also quite stylish and a successful person. So we needed to make sure he was well dressed. I remember we did a pass with different style shirts and Amin pulled out a few: ‘I absolutely would not wear this.’ “

The set design for the film’s flashback sequences was just as fastidious. Art director Jess Nicholls deliberately avoided watching animated documentaries like the 2008 Oscar-nominated Waltz With Bashir so as to not “accidentally end up copying them.” Instead, she says, she read books about street life in 1980s Kabul, scrolled through archive footage of Moscow in the early 1990s and pored over maps and building schematics.

“You end up getting really obsessive, looking for weird things like how high was the curb on the streets, what sort of trees were there, what was the light like at that time of year,” she says. “I think those details, which you might not notice at all, can really communicate the mood of a place.”

When possible, Nichols drew directly from news footage or archive material, some of which Rasmussen splices into the film at opportune times “to remind people this is a real story. It’s not a fiction” and to demonstrate the bigger historical events, like the war between the Russians and the mujahideen that drove Amin to flee.

“Sometimes we could be very specific, like when his sisters arrive in Sweden on a container ship,” says Rasmussen. “We knew the date they arrived and we knew the ship, so it was about going through the archive material to find the ship they were on. We worked a lot on moving between archival footage and the animation so it would feel seamless, as if they belong to the same world.”

But when the first drafts of Amin came in, Rasmussen says, they were “a little too cartoony, with big eyes, like in Disney films” and everything looking “a little too smooth, too nice. It felt detached from reality. So we had to go back to the cover footage and bring those flaws into the animation, redo all the character designs. It was a long, long process.”

The animation style, “more 2D, classic graphic novel” as animation producer Charlotte de La Gournerie describes it, was crucial — not only to give Amin’s story a sense of realism, but also to secure financing. “Most money for animation in Europe is for kids animation,” says de La Gournerie. “We needed to have a look that made it clear this is a film for an adult audience, not the 8-to-12 crowd.”

Every frame of Flee‘s animated sequences was hand-drawn — “drawn electronically on a computer but still drawn by hand,” says Ladekjaer — by Flee‘s graphic artist team. “Around 10 animators, 10 cleanup artists and 10 coloring artists, so a big team,” he notes.

The animation for the Amin interview sequences is slightly choppy, with jump cuts and Amin’s voice not always perfectly lip-synced. While this gives the film a more handmade, documentary feel, the style was also a consequence of budget restraints. Flee cost 3.5 million euros ($4 million), making it, says Hellström, “a high-budget documentary film but a super-low-budget animation film.”

Notes Ladekjaer, “There is a technique where you take the hand-drawn frames and get a computer to do the transitions, so you have a smooth movement, but it leaves an uncanny feel, a digital handprint, and just removes a bit of that empathy for the character.”

 

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Early versions of Amin were “cartoony, with big eyes [that] felt detached from reality,” says Rasmussen. “We had to [bring] flaws into the animation.” COURTESY OF FINAL CUT FOR REAL

The animation style of Flee is not uniform, however. When the action shifts to the past, the realist, near-documentary style of the Amin interviews gives way to more dramatic, stylized depictions: from the colorful streets of a Kabul market to the gray-on-gray drabness of a Moscow apartment block to the noir-lit horrors of Amin’s experience with human traffickers. At moments of extreme trauma, moments Amin can’t or won’t remember, the animation becomes almost abstract, smudgy black-and-white charcoal drawings of figures running, children screaming.“There are elements of Amin’s story that he struggles to remember or that he only remembers in fragments, and where there’s ambiguity, it was important that the images are honest about that. The fragmentation of Amin’s memories is conveyed by this fragmentation of the animation,” says producer Signe Byrge. “It was very important that content and form were working together.”

When deciding when to shift between styles, when to judge which of Amin’s memories were clear and which were fuzzy or repressed, Rasmussen went back to the source: Amin’s voice.

“When he started talking about something that felt very traumatic, or when it was something that he didn’t see himself but only imagined, you could hear it,” Rasmussen says. “His voice would slow down, he would stop. There would be longer pauses between words. [Like] when his father is taken away or when the sisters are in the container of the ship. He wasn’t there, so he couldn’t tell us exactly what things looked like, but his feeling of fear was present. So I thought, OK, we need to see that, that emotion, because that feels more honest than showing a clear image of what actually happened.”

Adds Flee editor Janus Billeskov Jansen, “All the time we were guided by the truth, which was Amin’s recording. It’s a subjective truth because he is holding back things or trying not to remember, but the recording is the truth as Amin saw it.”

Combining the documentary truth of Amin’s story with the production demands of an animated feature presented some major challenges, however. In animation, where each frame will cost you, production is all about planning ahead. Every shot is laid out and storyboarded in explicit detail before production begins. A typical documentary is the reverse: the director collects hundreds of hours of footage, then “finds the story” in the edit.

For Flee, Jansen and Rasmussen combined the two approaches. Working off Rasmussen’s “radio documentary” edit of the interviews with Amin, Jansen would get the animators to supply him with quick-drawn mock-ups of animated material that he could cut together.

“We were sitting right next door to the edit suite and Janus would run in and say, ‘Can I get a close-up of Amin, looking a bit angry from left to right? And then a wide shot from above?’ and we’d sketch that, really quickly,” says Ladekjaer. “We’d provide him with a lot of ‘footage,’ so to speak, that he could play with, like you would with a documentary.”

Says Jansen, “It was fantastic, because at the start, anything we could dream up we could get: a drone shot of Kabul city in the 1980s, Amin [at] 5 years old, dancing in his sister’s nightshirt. Or the moment when Amin enters the gay bar in Stockholm, enters that whole colorful, wonderful world — [a moment] that makes me cry no matter how many times I see it.”

This back-and-forth experimentation continued for months, with Rasmussen sending Amin rough cuts as they progressed.

“He’d watch them and come back to me if something was factually wrong or if we left out something that he felt was key to him, to his story. We initially took out the section when he was in prison in Estonia, because it was so dramatic, so extreme, we thought it was too much, but he insisted we put it back in,” says Rasmussen. “There were moments of vanity — he initially wanted to take out the part where he asked for medicine against being gay because he was embarrassed by that — but it was always a conversation.”

For the music to Flee, Rasmussen turned to Uno Helmersson, a composer who worked on the acclaimed documentaries Armadillo and The Painter and the Thief and the Scandinavian noir drama The Bridge. Helmersson too started with Amin’s voice.

“I thought of his voice as like a singer, with the phrases and the pauses between phrases,” says Helmersson. “The sound when the truth comes out for the first time, it’s a pretty intense moment, and you can hear it in his voice. So I tried to get out of the way of that and use my music to emphasize the feelings that Amin can’t or won’t express.”

The result is a stripped-down score relying mostly on stringed instruments — violin, cello, guitar — with the occasional muted vocal or source music. Sometimes, as in the film’s “What is home?” opening sequence, the sources are sewn together from a combination of folk and classical styles. Elsewhere, the effect is minimalist, as with the closing phrase involving a lone piano and string quartet.

“It was really a matter of taking my ego out of the music,” Helmersson says, “because this is Amin’s story. His voice alone should be the strongest component.”

It was only after the Danish version of Flee was completed and Participant was preparing the documentary for a screening at Sundance that producers approached Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau with the idea of doing an English-language version of the film. Ahmed would voice Amin. Coster-Waldau would be Rasmussen. Both actors jumped at the chance, also joining as executive producers.

“When I saw it, it blew my mind,” Ahmed recalls. “Not only was it an important and profoundly moving story, it was told in an exceptionally creative way. Coming on board was a no-brainer.”

Ahmed spent hours video chatting with Amin to match his style and tone. “He did an amazing job,” notes Hellstrom.

At its core, says Ahmed, Flee “reminds us of the humanity behind words that they only see in headlines such as ‘Afghan’ or ‘refugee.’ These words and the debates around them can be divisive, but I think this film reminds us of the core of humanity that we all share underneath our so-called differences. This fulfills the highest calling of storytelling, which is to remind us through the force of its imagination that there is no ‘us and them,’ only ‘us.’ “

Says Rasmussen, “This is a refugee story, and I know we are exposed to so many of these kinds of stories — I see them all the time — on TV, in the newspapers, in my feeds, and I’m like the rest: I tend to block them out, because when you see a human face of someone who’s struggling and you can’t do anything to help, it can be too much to cope with. But here, because you are not exposed to a human face, because it’s animation, I think it makes it possible to take it in. You can watch and really listen. Listen to Amin’s voice. And be reminded that this is a real person. This is a real story.”