Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, the multi-award-winning animated documentary, is now in US cinemas. Here’s why animation was the best way to tell this story.
This is an excerpt from the ebook Subjective realities: The art of creative nonfiction. Get your copy here.
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In the final shot of Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s beautiful, heartrending animated documentary, Flee, the animation fades into the live footage on which it’s based, and they’re remarkably similar. It’s a clever reminder that the story you’ve just been swept up in is in fact real, and a hint at just how faithful to reality the animation style has been throughout the film. Having seen some of the reference images on which the rest of the film’s animation is based, it’s incredible how true to life the film is.
Flee opens with silhouettes in gray and blue, an image of legs running, and the sound of heavy breathing. In voiceover, Rasmussen asks his dear friend, Amin, “What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?” It’s a strong distillation of the story the film will explore, of a man who has been constantly on the run, unable to find somewhere comfortable to call home, not just physically but emotionally, because he’s never told his story of fleeing as a refugee in full to the people who are closest to him. It’s also an introduction to the more abstract animation style that will characterise the moments of trauma that Amin recalls, more by evoking feelings than by faithfully depicting the facts of events.
Rasmussen and Amin met as teenagers, when Amin was a new refugee to Denmark, having been forced to flee Afghanistan during the war. Starting at the beginning, with Amin recalling his childhood in Afghanistan, Rasmussen follows Amin’s narration of his story as he flees Kabul for Russia, gets stuck in Estonia, returns to Russia again, and finally, makes safe passage to Denmark. The film shifts between Amin in the present day, figuring out whether he’s ready to settle down with his partner, Kasper, and Amin telling the story of his past, which is tied up with the decisions about his future.
Working with the original voice recordings Rasmussen made when interviewing Amin about his story, Ramsussen uses animation to fill in the blanks, creating a vivid world of memory that is true to life and to Amin’s emotional journey. When Amin recalls the warmth of his childhood home, the animation transports us back in time to Kabul and the intimacy Amin shared with his siblings and mother. When Amin recalls feeling out of place when he knew he was gay and hot for Jean Claude Van Damme, the animation takes us to his childhood bedroom, with walls covered in Van Damme posters, but with a shadow over Amin sitting on his bed, because he had to hide that part of himself.
At every stage of the film, the animation is supplemented with archival footage of the events or places being depicted. It grounds the film in reality to such an extent that you forget that an enormous amount of work went into editing together all the elements that make up the film: the animation of Amin’s memory, animation of him telling his story in the present day, and the archival footage — not to mention that each of these animated sequences had to be dreamed up and created.
Since its world premiere in the Sundance World Documentary Competition in 2021 — something likely unheard of five years ago for an animated documentary — the film has been picking up awards and accolades at every festival where it’s screened. It won the Grand Jury Prize for World Dramatic Documentary at Sundance, the Audience Award at Visions du Réel, and won several awards at the Annecy Animated Film Festival, including Best Feature. At the time of publication, the film is just gearing up for its fall 2021 awards campaign.
Back when Flee screened at Visions du Réel, I sat down with Rasmussen for one of the earliest in-depth interviews on the film. He discussed why he views the film as a documentary despite the animation, how he approached creating the animation style, the research he did to make the film as authentic as possible, and what he learned from making radio documentaries that helped him with the film.
That interview was then published in our ebook Subjective realities: The art of creative nonfiction film, in a Case Study on animated documentaries. What follows is an excerpt from that interview.
Seventh Row (7R): What do you feel you get from telling this story using animation, and still making Flee as a nonfiction film rather than a fiction film?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: First and foremost, the story is the testimony by my very dear friend. [The film] is him re-writing his own story. Most of that is in the past, so how do we make this past [come to] life?
It was crucial [for Flee] to be a documentary and label it as [such] because I think that there’s another level of engagement when you know it’s real. How do we tell a story about memory? I thought animation was a way to do it. Sometimes, live action reenactments feel a little cold. But because it’s about memory and trauma, it allows us to be more creative and go into layers. It’s more of an emotion that we’re being factual about than what things look like. In animation, you can really be precise about a feeling of anger or fear.
7R: What made you want to tell this story and turn it into a film?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: I met Amin when I was fifteen years old and he was sixteen. I kind of knew all along that there was a story behind why he arrived in my hometown, but he never wanted to talk about it. Being a storyteller, knowing that behind a very good friend there’s a backstory that I don’t know anything about, is kind of intriguing.
[Many years ago] I did radio documentaries. I asked him if I could do a radio documentary about his story. He said that he wasn’t ready to tell the story yet. But he knew that he had to do it at some point, and when he was ready, he would go to me.
Years later, I was invited to a workshop here in Denmark called AniDoc where they gather animators and documentary filmmakers, and try to develop animated docs. They asked me if I had an idea for an animated doc. I thought about his story again. I asked him if I could do an animated doc about his story. He finally said yes.
The animation enabled him to be anonymous; he didn’t have to show his face. This is the very first time he has told his story. He didn’t want to have his own face in the film. He didn’t want to become a public figure when talking about his life for the first time.
Almost everything takes place in the past. I thought animation was a really good way to make it come back to life. I used this technique that I’ve used before, in radio documentaries, for interviewing: he’s laying down, and he has his eyes closed and talks in the present tense. It’s a technique I use in radio normally, because in radio, you don’t have an image, so you need the subject to paint a picture. I asked him to talk in present tense and be really precise and also descriptive about environments.
In the beginning of the first interview, I asked him, what’s the first memory you have? That was him being in the backyard of his house, in the garden, and his sister telling stories about their father. And then, I would ask him, “Okay, but what does it look like? What are the materials? What is the house built out of? What kind of plants do you have? What are the colours?” All these things gave us a lot of information that the animators could use to bring this back to life. Also, what do you feel? What’s the emotion running through you? It was about really trying to put words to that.
The way he starts talking about it, he kind of relives his memories instead of just retelling them. He’s back there. I think that’s a really good tool to engage the audience, because you live it with him, all of a sudden, instead of just having the story told.
7R: Can you tell me about your experience with radio documentaries? The audio component of the film is so important. What approaches did you bring from that experience to Flee?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: If you already know what you’re going to ask next, you don’t really pay attention. You miss the chance to really go deep. Of course, I had topics that I wanted to talk about. But I never had a list of questions that I looked at.
I got most of that from radio documentaries. I was taught by this guy in Denmark, who was like a grand old man of radio documentaries. I asked him once, when I did a documentary, “How do you do good interviews?” He said, “You listen. It’s not about the question. It’s about listening because then the good questions come.”
7R: How did you find the archival footage for Flee?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: I spent a lot of time on YouTube in the beginning. There’s so much stuff you can find. When we had interviews, and he told a story, I asked him, “Do you have specific dates for, like, the ship in Sweden [that his sisters traveled on in a shipping container]?”
It’s actually quite amazing what you can find. If you have a place and a date, especially here in Europe — because these television networks are all governmental funded — you can just go to them and say a date, and [ask if they] have something about refugees and a container and a ship. They say, “Yep,” and then we just get the files.
7R: You wrote the first draft of the script for Flee after that first set of interviews. How did it change as you were making the animatic?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: It did change a lot along the way. Through the process, I slowly realised that this is a story about finding home, both in the physical way — about a refugee who is forced away from his home and needs to find a new home — but also the inner journey of a gay man trying to find a place in life where he can be who he is, and be accepted.
That’s the amazing part of doing a documentary. You get these gifts, sometimes, like this. The whole fact that Amin and Kasper ended up buying a house in the end, I couldn’t have imagined that myself.
7R: There’s so much specificity to the framing and the light in the film. How did you come up with that? Is that part of writing the script? What is the process for figuring out those visual ideas?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: When [we began] animating, we had this core team, which was the Art Director, Jess Nicholls, the Animation Director, Kenneth Ladekjær, and me. Jess and Kenneth each had a team. Jess’s team did all the backgrounds and all the compositing, which means all the lighting, shadows, and effects. And Kenneth’s team did everything that moves in the film, all the animation. I was there to make sure that it kept the same nerve as I had envisioned. Of course, we developed the style together, but they really made sure that we succeeded in doing it.
It’s a very long process. With the artwork, with Jess, it was about finding the style. More than looking at other animation, we looked at painters. Because this is animation for adults, we didn’t want it to look too cartoony. They shouldn’t have big eyes or feel cute. It should feel rough and real. In the animation, the lines shouldn’t feel too straight and smooth, but should feel alive and like real people.
For the Art Direction, we looked at [American painter] Edward Hopper for how we wanted to interpret light in the film. We looked at [photographer] Ray K. Metzler for composition and colour, and [photographer] Aleksander Gronsky for composition and light. It was a long process of developing the visual style, which happened alongside writing and editing. And then we had a French guy called Nicolas André [who worked on] how to stylise things.
We have this big art bible where we gathered references. We showed how we want the artists to treat the different elements in the visual styles of the film. Early in the process, we did a lot of tests. We used that in our bible to show “this is good” and “this is not good” — [to demonstrate the preferred] approach [for] stylising things.
We were very precise in doing these art bibles, so everyone could follow the direction of the film. We were really precise on how to draw a hand, how to draw an eye. When we actually did the animation, it was a pretty big team, like fifty people working on it at the same time. It’s super important that they don’t draw his eyes differently from one scene to the other.
Even though it’s quite an expensive documentary, it’s actually a pretty cheap animated film. We had to simplify a lot because we couldn’t afford to have a lot of detail. It was about, how do we simplify a boat?
Continue reading the interview with Jonas Poher Rasmussen on Flee in Subjective realities
In the rest of the interview, Jonas Poher Rasmussen talks about how using animation in documentary can be freeing, the complex process of putting together and editing an animated documentary, how he made Amin comfortable with telling his story, and more. The interview also features exclusive pre-production sketches which show the process of putting together the film’s images.
The in-depth interview is one of four interviews in our Case Study on animated documentary, which explores how animation can be used to add focus to documentary audio, depict memories, and create an immersive experience. The other documentaries featured are two Award-winning highlights from 2021 film festivals — Archipelago and 1970 — and Leanne Pooley’s 2015 film, 25 April, which was one of the first animated documentaries I saw that really changed my understanding of what a documentary could be.
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to the animated documentary Case Study:
“Watching an animated documentary, you are immediately confronted with the question, is what I’m watching real or true? Even though all nonfiction is, to some degree, staged and curated, this fact is never more on your mind than when what you’re watching couldn’t be produced by just setting up a camera and observing what happens. Penny Lane’s NUTS! (2016), the animated documentary that inspired our use of the term ‘creative nonfiction,’ actively plays with these assumptions, deliberately lying to the audience to make a point.
The animated films in this Case Study tend to function in the opposite way: working to help you forget that what you’re watching is constructed while making use of the freedom that the medium provides. Sometimes, animation is juxtaposed with archival footage. Sometimes, familiar documentary elements, like talking head interviews, are animated. Sometimes, animation is used to deconstruct archives so that you question their veracity, too. While the films presented in this Case Study are by no means an exhaustive look at the animated documentary landscape, taken together, they do explore how animation can help a documentary reach a greater truth.”
Subjective realities: The art of creative nonfiction film also features interviews with great nonfiction filmmakers such as Kirsten Johnson, Robert Greene, Joe Bini, Gillian Armstrong, Mina Shum, Zia Anger, and more.