‘Flee’ Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen on the Painful Resonance of His Refugee Documentary Following the Crisis in Afghanistan

Jonas Pohen Rasmussen
Courtesy of Anders Rye Skjoldjensen

Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen was initially reluctant to make an English-language version of “Flee,” his animated documentary about a refugee who escaped his home in Afghanistan as a child to safety in Denmark. But Rasmussen thought a star-studded voice cast could help shed an important light on struggles similar to those of the film’s central figure, Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym).

A Hollywood agent suggested he connect with “Sound of Metal” star Riz Ahmed and “Game of Thrones” actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, both of whom empathized with Amin’s harrowing journey and ultimately narrated the doc.

For Rasmussen, getting “Flee” to the masses is a personal triumph because he’s close with Amin, his former high-school classmate, and spent years convincing his friend to share deeply intimate experiences from his upbringing.

“Flee” premiered at Sundance in January, but now that it’s playing at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, it feels especially topical. Do you think the crisis will change how audiences receive the film?

It’s definitely a prominent topic. There could be a bunch of refugees coming from Afghanistan now, so hopefully people will see the film and it will give them some perspective on what refugees go through and what it means to have your home taken away from you.

Why do you think Amin finally agreed to share his story?

He always knew at some point he would have to. I was curious when I met him about what had happened and how he ended up in my hometown. I’m from a very small city, 400 or 500 people. But [when I met him], he couldn’t say anything; he said he didn’t want to talk about it. And then years passed, and he was ready to talk to me.

What did you know about Amin’s life before he opened up to you?

Almost nothing, actually. He told me he had spent some time in Russia and that he knew Russian. Other than that, what you’re hearing in the film is the first time he told me the story.

You almost take on a therapist role because you have to be cautious about the way you’re asking him questions. You press him for details at times, but you want him to feel comfortable and know it’s on his own terms.

For him to open up, it needs to be a respectful room where he feels safe. If I pressured him, it would be a totally different story. Of course, at some points, you need to put in a little pressure. But I made it a safe space so he can always say when he needs a pause to think about something before continuing. During a span of three or four years, he slowly opened up more and more. That was the only way to do it.

Did you always plan to animate the documentary?

Animating the doc was key because he could tell it without having a face on the story. Also with the animation, it allowed us to be more expressive, especially when Amin has a hard time talking about [something] like a nightmare. It really brings honesty, somehow.

What was the trickiest part in crafting the narrative around Amin’s tumultuous life?

The story spans more than 30 years, so it was trying to find where to start. Quite soon, I realized this is a story about finding a home, both as a refugee who can’t share his story but also as a gay man, who doesn’t feel like he can be openly gay. I tried to shape it around that.

It was interesting to hear he had an affinity for pop culture as a child.

I was surprised about how similar our lives were. We listened to the same music, watched the same films and liked playing soccer. We have all these references that are key to understanding and relating to his story.

What do you hope audiences take away from “Flee”?

I really hope people can see how much it affects your life when you have your home taken away from you. People carry around so much that you don’t see.

Things you didn’t know about Jonas Poher Rasmussen:

Age: 40 Birthplace: Kalundborg, Denmark Most rewatched movie: “The Lives of Others” Favorite documentary: “The Act of Killing” Best quarantine binge-watch: “Devs” Favorite editing room snack: Apples