‘Flee’ director Jonas Rasmussen on revealing the untold story of his childhood friend

The origins of the new animated documentary “Flee” date back almost 25 years. That’s when filmmaker Jonas Rasmussen first met the man known in the film as Amin Nawabi, a pseudonym to protect the identity of Rasmussen’s real friend. As high school classmates in Denmark, Rasmussen always knew Nawabi, a refugee from Afghanistan, had more of a story to tell than he initially revealed. 

“A while back I asked if I could do a radio documentary about his story and he said no, he wasn’t ready to tell his story,” Rasmussen says in a new interview with Gold Derby. But after Rasmussen explored the idea of mixing animation with interview footage as a way to keep Amin’s identity a secret, his friend agreed to speak on the record about his life. The result is the new film “Flee,” which had been set to debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year before the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancelation. Audiences got to see “Flee” for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival, where Rasmussen’s film won the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary section.

“Flee” follows Amin from his early childhood in the 1980s through his pending marriage to a long-time partner. “This humane way of telling a refugee story,” Rasmussen says of his approach. “It’s not just about being a refugee, it’s about being a human being. As a human being, you have all sorts of issues. It’s not just about being a refugee, it’s about family, your love life, your sexuality.”

The skill with which Rasmussen brings this story to life has already caught the attention of two major Hollywood figures. Riz Ahmed, who is in the thick of this year’s awards conversation for “Sound of Metal,” and former “Game of Thrones” star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are executive producers on the project and will lend their voices to an English-language version of “Flee” that will be released by NEON on Dec. 3

“I was floored by the emotional impact of ‘Flee.’ This is a unique project that pushes forward our ideas of what documentary, animation, and refugee-centered narratives can be. I’m proud to help bring this project to life for English-speaking audiences,” Ahmed said in a statement.

“When I watched ‘Flee’ I was blown away by the power of a story told in a simple way,” added Coster-Waldau. “‘Flee’ is a story of extreme perseverance and hope where all hope seems lost. By using animation director Jonas Poher Rasmussen captures the intensity of one refugee’s unbelievable journey from the streets of Kabul to the Danish suburbia. Because Amin is able to tell his story hidden behind his animated avatar it feels so much more revealing and honest than had it been a standard filmed interview.”

“It was just amazing to get their feedback,” Rasmussen says now of the stars’ involvement. “They both love the project. Both of them it’s really dear to their hearts, especially Riz because he has the background he has himself. … I think it will help to get the film out to a broader audience and I think this story really deserves to get out there and have a big audience.”

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