Documentary

Sundance ’21: Jonas Poher Rasmussen opens up about his animated doc “Flee”

Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen has made a name for himself in the documentary space by incorporating vibrant physicality within his work. Rasmussen’s third film, Flee, brings exactly that to the 2021 ...
January 29, 2021

Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen has made a name for himself in the documentary space by incorporating vibrant physicality within his work.

Rasmussen’s third film, Flee, brings exactly that to the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which runs Jan. 28 to Feb. 3. The animated documentary, whose North American rights were acquired Friday (Jan. 29) by New York-based distributor Neon, tells the story of 36-year-old Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym) as he contends with revealing a “painful secret” kept hidden for more than two decades that threatens to ruin the life he and his soon-to-be husband have built.

Recounted through an array of archive footage, ’80s pop music and hand-drawn animation, Nawabi describes to Rasmussen — his close friend and high-school classmate – his five-year journey fleeing Afghanistan in the 1990s and arriving, as an unaccompanied minor, in Denmark, one of the most progressive countries in the world.

“I’ve got a background in radio documentary, and I tried to convince him a couple times that I should do an audio documentary about him, but he always said that he wasn’t ready to share his story,” the filmmaker says.

It wasn’t until a few years back when Rasmussen was approached by The Animation Workshop, an animation school housed in the former military barracks in Viborg, Denmark, which inquired whether Rasmussen had ideas kicking around for an animated documentary. He told the organization that he in fact did have an idea, but that the subject himself would need some convincing.

“When he dived into his life trauma, he didn’t want to stand out as a public figure,” explains the Danish director and writer.

As a result, Flee‘s hand-drawn craft serves two purposes. The first was to provide Nawabi with an added level of comfort in the form of an additional layer of anonymity.

The second, Rasmussen says, was that the medium was able to successfully paint a portrait of a crumbling Afghanistan in the 1980s, and a vibrant Russia and Denmark in the 1990s without detracting from the overall story.

“It was also a question of how do we show the emotions? This story is very much about trauma, memory, and things he can remember,” he explains. “Animation [allowed] us to be more expressive and emotional in the visual presentation.”

But it wasn’t a process that would prove to be swift, with nearly eight years having passed from concept to execution of the film. To create a script for the project, the filmmaker embarked on a series of interviews that played out over the course of several years.

What followed were months of developing nuanced and expressive character designs to accompany the visual styles of the 2D color animation, which was helmed by Denmark’s Sun Creature Studio and animation director Kenneth Ladekjær.

“In the beginning we did some tests, and they were too ‘toony, so we wanted [it] to be more realistic. It was a long period of just trial and error, testing things out,” says Rasmussen. “Finding a proper visual style for the animation – it took a long time.”

Financing tends to be the most difficult part about the entire filmmaking process, and while that’s mostly true for the crew attached to Flee, the ball really began rolling with a small grant from the Danish Film Institute to create a teaser, which was then pitched at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. There, Flee would pick up the Disney Channel Prize for best new series at Annecy’s 2016 MIFA market.

“We’re having a real voice telling his life story, and then putting animation on top. A lot of people didn’t really understand how that would work, but then we went to Annecy to pitch the teaser,” recalls Rasmussen. “All of a sudden you saw that people actually understand it – we won this prize. [Having the trailer] took us a lot further.”

From there, Rasmussen says that producer Monica Hellström of Final Cut for Real, a two-time Academy Award-nominated production outfit located in Copenhagen, did an “incredible job finding the money,” noting that the 90-minute feature is the result of a four-country coproduction in Denmark, France, Sweden and Norway. In addition to that, the documentary boasts financiers and support from the likes of Vice Studios, ARTE France, the Danish Film Institute, Ryot Films, the Norwegian Film Institute, the Nordic Film and TV Fond, and the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.

“As soon as we got ARTE France coming on board things just started rolling and it felt like we had other people joining all of a sudden,” says Rasmussen. “There’s been a very positive vibe surrounding the project all along.”

That positivity would eventually bring Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and The Sound of Metal‘s Riz Ahmed to the project as executive producers. With a little help, the film’s American sales agents – Vice Studios and 30WEST – got in touch with Ahmed, whose Left Handed Films serves as a coproducer on the film. And as for Coster-Waldau?

“He’s Danish like me, and Denmark’s a small country, so it was a lot easier to get a hold of him,” Rasmussen says with a laugh. “But it was just super exciting to see such big-name actors having interest in the project and they really took the project close to their hearts, and really committed to being a part of this journey.”

Both Ahmed and Coster-Waldau will also voice the lead roles in an English language version of the film which will debut later this year.

Flee is produced by Final Cut for Real (Denmark) in coproduction with animation studio Sun Creature (Denmark), Vivement Lundi! (France), MostFilm (Sweden), and Mer Film (Norway).

ARTE France and VPRO Nederland coproduce. The film is supported and produced in association with Vice Studios and Ryot Films and Ahmed’s Left Handed Films.

  • Flee debuted Thursday, Jan. 28 and next screens Saturday, Jan. 30 at 10 a.m. MT.
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