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Animated documentary 'Flee' tells of a teen's escape from Afghanistan to Denmark

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jonas Poher Rasmussen grew up in a small town in Denmark and, at the age of 15, became friends with Amin, a slightly older boy from Afghanistan who was in a foster care family because he'd fled his country all by himself. Years later, Jonas Poher Rasmussen has told his friend's story, and it is more complex, unnerving and poignant than he ever knew. "Flee" is the title of their new animated documentary, which premiered at Sundance and is Denmark's entry for Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JONAS POHER RASMUSSEN: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: So from the time you were teenagers, did Amin always seem reluctant to tell his story?

RASMUSSEN: Yeah. You know, I met him when I was 15, and he arrived in my little, Danish, rural hometown. And I was, of course, curious about how and why he had come. But yeah, no, he didn't want to talk about it.

SIMON: And what changed in these days? I mean, in the animated documentary, there are parts of it - you know, you get Amin to lie down. It almost looks like therapy.

RASMUSSEN: Yeah. But, you know, him laying down, having his eyes closed and talking present tense really comes from a technique of interviewing that I learned when doing radio. I have a background in radio, and I've done a ton of radio documentaries back in Denmark. And this technique of him laying down is really to create presence in his voice, especially when you deal with the stories from the past. So to kind of bring people back to a specific situation, you have to lay down, close the eyes, and talk present tense in order to really create presence in the way of talking.

SIMON: Did the animation, do you think, somehow make it easier for Amin to speak?

RASMUSSEN: Oh, but totally it did. With the animation, we could keep him anonymous. And the fact that he wouldn't have a public eye on his story - because what you see in the film, what you hear in the film is the very first time he shares his story.

SIMON: Yeah. When we meet Amin in the first few frames, he's an adult, an accomplished academic. He has love in his life. What you begin to appreciate as he recounts his story is all the dread and terror that happened before he got there. It begins with Afghanistan's Russian occupation and the Taliban takeover, then his family's exile in Moscow and its political oppression, corruption, human smugglers. And I want to ask you about an especially haunting sequence when members of his family are led by smugglers on a pitiless walk through a dense, cold forest. What was that like for him to recount?

RASMUSSEN: You know, I think all of the testimony was really difficult. And at times, you could really tell that you - we went into an area of his memories that was really hard to talk about. And that specific sequence was definitely one of them. And you kind of sense in his voice, you know, that, all of a sudden, he would have a hard time remembering details, and he would kind of slow down. And it - all of a sudden, it became more of an emotional journey.

SIMON: Amin and his family flee, only to be sent back. I don't want to tell the whole story, obviously, 'cause it's so beautifully presented in the film, but it reminds you by the time we see people in front of us, we don't know what they did to get there, do we?

RASMUSSEN: Yeah, exactly. And you don't know what people carry around, you know? Amin carried this story around for more than 20 years, and I never knew.

SIMON: It is so clearly difficult for Amin to speak. And look; you and I are both in the business of trying to get people to do just that.

RASMUSSEN: Yeah.

SIMON: But did you ever want to tell him, that's OK, let's stop, no need to go into that?

RASMUSSEN: Yeah. But, you know, in the beginning, we had this agreement that we're just trying it out, you know? I think I did between, like, 15, 20 interviews during the span of, I think, three or four years. But, you know, the first year, year and a half, the deal was - the agreement was that we were just trying this out. And if it didn't work for him, if it didn't feel comfortable, he always had the possibility to say this isn't working, and he could kind of leave. He had a back door.

SIMON: Yeah. You know, I'm struck by the fact that in Denmark, as Amin grows older, he could say that he had begun to grasp that he was gay. But he couldn't say that other members of his family were still alive in Sweden.

RASMUSSEN: Yeah. Yeah, and, you know, Amin came out to me when I was 16. Like, it - like, it's always been a natural part of him for me. But then, of course, when we start talking, I kind of realize that this is a double coming-out story. It's about, I mean, coming out to his family as a gay person, and it's him coming out to me about what happened in the past

SIMON: And why couldn't he tell people that his - he had other family members alive?

RASMUSSEN: For different reasons, but most of all, he was given this fake story by the human traffickers that got him to Denmark.

SIMON: Yeah.

RASMUSSEN: And he thought that he had to stick to that.

SIMON: Is Amin safe now? I mean, even if your film wins the Academy Award, I - do you worry that the Danish government, the European Union will say, you know, look; you entered the country illegally? You've got to be returned, or you've got to be prosecuted.

RASMUSSEN: Yeah. That was a big concern of mine while we kind of started the project. But then we kind of got his file from the government and had an attorney look at it. And what he saw quite immediately was that he wasn't given asylum because of his background story. He was given asylum because he was - he arrived to Denmark as a underage refugee from a war-torn country. So I was, of course, excited when we got to know that. And I told him, and he was also happy about it. But you could also just tell on his face - you know, he just went back 20 years and all these years where he couldn't - where he had to keep the secret, where he felt like had to keep the secret, and the fact that he couldn't reunite with his family because he had to say that they were all dead. So there's no legal issues for him to - like, the only reason for him to be anonymous is because he wants to still keep control over his story.

SIMON: Among so many poignant and gripping sequences, there's one that would make anyone in the news business cringe, and that's when Amin's family is living in foul circumstances. And he notes how the press would come just long enough to get a few shots of the poor refugees living in misery. And they would put him on the air and go home, and nothing would change. What do you hope people who see "Flee" will see in all the stories that we do and put out about refugees today?

RASMUSSEN: It's difficult to really tell the refugee story because often refugees are just described by what they need and not as the complex individuals we all are. So I think my hope is that with "Flee" - this comes from the inside of a friendship, and I'm hoping that that will bring a lot of nuance.

SIMON: Jonas Poher Rasmussen, who is director of the animated documentary "Flee," now showing in theaters in Los Angeles and New York - more cities in January. Thank you so much for being with us.

RASMUSSEN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAFT PUNK'S "VERIDIS QUO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.