For Flee director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Hollywood’s film festival and awards season is more than just an opportunity to claim (well-deserved) accolades. It’s a chance for the Danish filmmaker, a self-confessed nerd, to rub shoulders with other movie buffs—from Guillermo del Toro to Kristen Stewart to fellow Scandinavia native Joachim Trier.
Combining evocatively drawn animation with the real-life story of refugee Amin—a pseudonym for a friend of Rasmussen’s, anonymously revealing his story of fleeing Afghanistan for Russia and Denmark—Flee has made Academy Award history by becoming the first title nominated in three major categories: animated, documentary, and international film, the latter as this year’s Danish entry. It’s also notable for centering a queer protagonist without, as Rasmussen says, exoticizing or overemphasizing his queerness. The director told The A.V. Club about the universality of Flee, his cinematic influences, and what he hopes for the future of international filmmaking.
The A.V. Club: Congratulations on the many deserved accolades for Flee. What has it been like, being minted an Academy Award nominee?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: It’s crazy, really. This really started out being just a conversation between Amin and me in my living room in Copenhagen almost a decade ago. In the beginning, we just thought maybe this could be on local TV in Denmark. So to be here in Hollywood 10 years after that, it’s of course amazing and awesome. And this story is so important to me. It’s a very personal story for a very dear friend of mine. To see how people have reacted to it, that people really take him in and understand what he went through, how it affects refugees, especially in these times—it becomes very meaningful to spread these kinds of stories.
AVC: Now that you’re here in Hollywood mingling with other Oscar nominees, do you remember your initial expectations for this film’s reception?
JPR: It really was a project that grew and grew and grew. It started out being that conversation and… further down the line, we would have a feeling that we were doing something special. But you know, I’ve had that feeling before and then other people didn’t feel the same about it. So, of course, when the film premiered at Sundance, we got some really amazing reviews and amazing reactions for the film. And that’s kind of where we saw, okay, maybe we actually did make something special and maybe we can go all the way. But still, I think we had to pinch ourselves in the arm when we got [Oscar] nominations a month back. It’s been remarkable. I’ve met some wonderful people, people whose films I’ve watched, and it’s just such an incredible honor to be among them.
AVC: What’s been your favorite moment, bringing Flee to countries around the world?
JPR: We need two favorite moments. One is meeting fellow filmmakers; I think especially after the pandemic, to meet audiences and to see how the audience reacts to the story has been really amazing and meaningful. Having these instances where people come up to you at screenings and [say], “This is not just Amin’s story, but it’s also my story,” has been really, really meaningful.
But on a personal level as well, the Oscars luncheon was just insane. You know, I was at a table with Guillermo del Toro who gave me a big hug. And just behind me was Billie Eilish and Kristen Stewart. You know, coming from rural Denmark, that’s really something. Everyone was just there to celebrate filmmaking. And the last couple years we’ve been apart and now finally being able to be together and celebrate filmmaking again was really moving.
AVC: Hollywood’s awards season creates this confluence of international filmmakers, in conversation and in “competition.” Is there anything you’ve learned from American cinema, or that American filmmakers should learn from Scandinavian cinema?
JPR: For me, American cinema is kind of what I grew up with: how you tell a story, the clarity and the brilliance and the craft. The acting! But that being said, of course, there are other ways to tell stories as well. The Academy [honors] different kinds of stories—to see Parasite, which I thought was amazing, one of the masterpieces of the last decade, get the recognition it deserves at the Oscars, I think, was beautiful. And I hope also because the world is getting smaller and we’re getting more and more connected in various ways, through social media and in various ways, hopefully that will continue and we’ll start to see films from countries in Africa and South America and all over the world as well. Because I think the sense of connectivity is really important not just for filmmaking, but for the world in general.
AVC: What about queer stories and characters in cinema? Are we at a turning point with authentic LGBTQ representation in films from around the world?
JPR: I really hope so. I think it’s amazing to see, you know, this year we have two LGBTQ films in the animation category [Flee and The Mitchells Vs. The Machines]—where we have two protagonists who are gay and not in a way where it’s a thing. It’s just a natural part of who they are, not like, we need to flag it.
I didn’t really think that Amin being gay would be a big part of this story in the beginning. Because he came out to me when I was 17, so that’s always been a natural part of who he was. But then talking to him about his own concerns about coming out to his own family, I thought, okay, we need to make room for this story in the film as well. But it was super important to me that it felt natural. It wasn’t something exotic. You know, when you meet his boyfriend, it’s not a big deal, it’s just two people, they kiss. That’s how it should be.
AVC: Because Flee is nominated in these three Oscar categories—a first in Academy history—I wanted to ask you about your cinematic influences. Which animated, documentary, and then, let’s say, “international” films inspired you and the making of Flee?
JPR: The obvious [influence for Flee] is Waltz With Bashir, which is this animated doc that came out in 2009, also dealing with trauma. That was really the film I saw where I understood that this could be done. I’d never really heard about animated documentaries before so this film was really kind of mind-blowing in a way, how you can deal with trauma and talk about things that are really difficult to talk about. Waltz With Bashir is about trauma and genocide, and because it’s animated, I was like, okay, I can sit through this, I can listen to what’s being said. And it doesn’t kind of become too much. How they could use the animation to create a more emotional space at times was really powerful. So that one really was a big inspiration for me.
But I grew up with animation. I loved [Hayao] Miyazaki movies, of course. And Disney and Pixar. And then for documentary, I was mind-blown by The Act Of Killing. It’s actually a film from the same production company that Flee was made in, so I’m a little biased. I was at the company at the time, and that film was just one of those experiences where you sit back afterwards and you don’t get out of the chair in the cinema. I’ve just never seen anything like it before. That film [created] a big shift in me in how to tell stories. And for “international” film, one of my big heroes is [Oscar-]nominated as well: Joachim Trier for The Worst Person In The World. I’ve seen his films since I was in film school; Reprise and especially Oslo, August 31st [are] very, very close to my heart. I did a film at film school that was almost a rip-off of one of his films—just, like, a sequence, not a full rip-off. But I was very inspired by that. There’s such a warmth and tonality and personality in his films that just hits me somewhere special. Joachim Trier… you can tell that there’s such a profound affection for his characters in all of his films. And he just has a very kind of playful way of telling you stories that I think is very inspiring.
AVC: What did Flee teach you about your creative process or yourself, that you might take into future projects?
JPR: Animation is a very different process than documentaries that I’ve done before because you need to be very precise. Because animation is so expensive, you need to know exactly how to tell your story before you start animating anything. And that position, I think, was really a revelation for me. Before, I enjoyed doing things a little “rock ’n’ roll,” kind of figuring out how to do things on the way. Which also has its benefits. But here, I think I found a place where I understand how to tell a story and [know how] to start and end it. So the perception of filmmaking that there is in animation is really something that I want to bring into my new projects. And of course, with all the success of Flee, there’s been doors opening that weren’t open before for me. So I have a couple of ideas that I’m going to jump on when I’m done with all the campaigning. It’s pretty hard to focus on anything else for the last couple of months!
AVC: Well, we can’t wait to see what you do next. And possibly with Guillermo del Toro!
JPR: Yeah, I would love to! He’s an amazing guy.