Jonas Poher Rasmussen • Director of Flee
“I didn’t intend to do a refugee story; I wanted to do a story about my friend”
by Marta Bałaga
- We talked to the Danish director whose latest movie has become one of the year’s most celebrated titles and came out on top at Millennium Docs Against Gravity
Named Best Film at Millennium Docs Against Gravity 2021 (see the news), following its triumphant premiere at Sundance, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary Flee [+see also:
interview: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
film profile] focuses on Amin. About to marry the man he loves, he is ready to share details about his refugee past, as well as his penchant for the “Muscles from Brussels”.
Cineuropa: The film is surprisingly uplifting. Was that planned, or did it happen later, when you were finding out more about his story?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: I didn’t intend to do a refugee story; I wanted to do a story about my friend. That’s where it came from: our friendship. We have fun together; we know each other quite well. He could talk freely – even about having had a crush on Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Well, I don’t know [laughs]! I guess I had one as well, but in a different way. Being a refugee is tough, but within this space of five years, good things happened as well. He fell in love and had wonderful experiences with his family. I am always trying to make my stories human – if you just show the harshness, you can’t really relate to it. The fact that you can also laugh about some things or see him lie to his boyfriend, all these flaws – that makes him more human. Take the scene where he is in the garden, looking at a house. Or rather, looking at a cat while his boyfriend is looking at trees. These things tell us something, and that’s why it’s not just a refugee story. It’s more about finding your place in the world, a place where you can be who you are.
You show someone who doesn’t necessarily share things – even with the person he loves. It’s one thing to talk to a friend and quite another to open up publicly, in a film.
I think he knew all along that he would have to tell his story at some point. It was hard, to lie all the time. Maybe not lie, but not be completely honest. He would always keep his distance – mostly because of that untold truth. He knew he needed to open up in order to get rid of that. My background is in radio, and I asked him, many years ago, if I could make a radio documentary about his story. At that point, we had already known each other for more than ten years. He said no; he wasn’t ready. But also, he said that he would like to tell it to me once he was ready. It was an open conversation about how to create a safe space. He could always stop or say: “Wait, I said it the wrong way.”
Do you think the idea to animate it helped him out? I would probably be more comfortable watching an animated version of me, too.
Definitely. Also, if it had been his actual face on the screen, he would have worried that every time he met new people, they would already know all of his secrets and traumas. Now, he still has this clean slate. It was also a way to bring back the past. Animation allows you to be much more expressive than you could be just with the camera.
It’s also a story about sexuality. Once you forget about his background, many kids could easily recognise themselves in these struggles.
Those two stories are really related to each other. Him being a refugee and being gay – he has always been running away from something. When he was a kid in Afghanistan, being gay wasn’t acceptable, so he kept that hidden. In Denmark, he kept his past hidden. This film is called Flee, and it’s really about fleeing from who you are, more than a physical journey. I guess that’s part of why people can relate to this story. Most of us, at some point in our lives, are trying to figure out where we can be who we are, and what it entails.
There are quite a few characters that come and go, like the girl in the truck, who is very memorable. How much attention did you want to devote to each storyline?
Amin was always the main character, so the stories we kept in were about the situations and people that informed him. The woman in the back of the Russian truck, or the young kid he sees, these are the characters that really shaped him. They are still with him. That woman? He still thinks about her on a weekly basis, even after all these years.
Do you think you would be able to make another film with someone you know? Or would you rather focus on some nice stranger next time?
That’s a good question. Now I am working on a fiction, so I think it would really need to be something special. Flee was an amazing experience, and he has been so generous, but it’s also very close to my own life. You have this twofold responsibility: towards the production and towards your subject, which can sometimes be hard to navigate.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.