In a new series, Variety catches up with the directors of the films shortlisted for the International Feature Film Oscar to discuss their road to the awards, what they’ve learned so far, and what’s taken them off guard.
In Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee,” a former Afghan refugee grapples with his traumatic past in order to find his true self. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema – Documentary section, among numerous other accolades. Rasmussen responded to Variety’s questions in writing.
What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar?
It’s of course a huge honor. I’ve worked on the film for seven to eight years, so to feel that the work we’ve done is being appreciated means the world, and then it’s just mind-blowing to see my name on that list among so many incredible filmmakers who have given me numerous indelible cinematic experiences in recent years. And also it’s heartwarming to feel the support from the industry here in Denmark. It really feels like everyone is rooting for the film and me…I’m just very proud of it all.
What’s been the most challenging aspect of your campaign thus far?
As for most people, I think, not being able to plan anything because of COVID has been very difficult. Release and travel plans have changed constantly and it feels like I’ve had one foot out the door all the time, which has made it hard to focus mentally.
Also, one of the most rewarding things to me is to meet colleagues and audiences across the world, so to be robbed of the opportunity to meet people in person has been a little frustrating. I’m really tired of meeting people on Zoom and Teams and I miss being inside a full cinema.
Although you are shortlisted in the international feature category, the best picture category has been devoid of non-English language features. “Parasite” (2019) was the first winner in history. Do you feel international voices are siloed in media and film criticism?
It might have been the case, but I think it really shows the strength of the American film industry that foreign-language films are even eligible for best picture. I don’t know other places in the world where films from other countries would be. And also I think it’s great to see how the American Academy has started to open up towards the world. It seems like there is a process going on right now of globalizing the industry in a way that I think is going to be beneficial for everyone in the end. Not just the industry, but also on a human level in regards to opening up towards different kinds of stories from all over the world, and different ways of telling them. If audiences across the world get access to a wider span of stories and start to relate to people they wouldn’t normally identify with, we’re making the first baby steps down the path to world peace.
Are there ways to improve this process when it comes to awards season?
I don’t know. I’m not an expert on how this works, but again, I believe a process is already going on. To me it’s really about opening up and acknowledging that a film is a film. The quality of the storytelling and the craft is what is key. Not where it’s from. “Parasite” was groundbreaking in that way and hopefully more films from different parts of the world will follow.
When trying to get consumer audiences to watch an international feature, there seems to be a focus on the length of a movie, but when something like “Avengers: Endgame” gets a three-hour runtime, Marvel fans are ecstatic and say they could go longer if they wanted to. Is that fair?
Hmm, I don’t know if it really compares and if I would talk about fair or unfair. I don’t know the U.S. industry that well, but here in Denmark we really depend on each other in the industry. We need the big blockbusters to generate an economy that can help fund the lesser grossing films and enable studios and cinemas to take a risk. There should be room for both three-hour runtime super hero movies and “smaller” films like long international features and animated documentaries.
The Academy has favored European countries, with Italy and France winning triple the number of times than a country like Japan. How can we encourage more diversity from all countries globally?
I don’t know. Maybe a kind of quota system where each continent needs to be represented on the shortlist.
As your country’s representative film, is there any government grant/fund you can access for the campaign?
Yes, we can apply for support from the Danish Film Institute for our campaign.
Members have to opt in to vote for nominees for international feature. On the Academy Streaming Room, they separate those films, and there is no charge for placing them on the platform. However, for $12,500, a film will be placed on the best picture section, adding an increased chance of viewing, which benefits financially lucrative studio movies. Not every filmmaker or country has the means to pay that fee. In addition, the Academy charges for email blasts to members with reminders to vote, and hosted Q&As. Do you find the process of getting nominated fair? If no, how would you like to see it change?
As a filmmaker I would of course hope the best films get nominated and not the ones with the best campaign. The work and craft should be the focus; not how you convince people to watch and vote. But how you do that in a fair way, I don’t know.
How do you think the film has changed the audience’s attitudes about refugees?
I hope that because this story is told from the inside of a friendship, it’ll give some nuance to the narrative surrounding refugees that we are normally exposed to in the media headlines. Often, refugees are described merely by what they need and not as the individuals they are with complex psychologies like everyone else. I hope audiences will relate to what Amin has to say and understand how important it is to listen to each other’s stories and that they will realize that being a refugee is not an identity but a circumstance. It’s something you go through and then hopefully get out on the other side and are able to start building a new life for yourself — but it’s not who you are.
Do you think it may also lead refugees to alter how they perceive themselves?
I hope that just as audiences should see the importance of listening, that refugees will see the importance of sharing stories. How healing it is to share what you’ve been through when you are ready. Amin told me that growing up he didn’t have a lot of stories he could relate to, so if “Flee” can be one of those stories for refugees in the future, that’ll make me very happy.
What project are you working on now?
I’m slowly finding my legs and trying to come up with new ideas after a quite tumultuous year. I do have a new animated story in the pipeline among other ideas, but it’s still too early to share details. I hope I’ll have time to focus on new ideas soon.