When director Jonas Poher Rasmussen premiered “Flee” at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, he was flying solo. The groundbreaking animated documentary depicts the experiences of the Danish filmmaker’s longtime friend as he speaks about his experiences escaping Afghanistan in the ‘90s. Eventually, the man — identified only as “Amin” — resettled in Denmark and came out as gay. The movie tracks Amin’s challenges in reconciling his past and present experiences in his adult life, while retelling the harrowing journey that defined his youth.
The animation allows Rasmussen’s friend to maintain his anonymity even as he shares the intimate story for the first time. While that decision underscores the remarkable creative ambition of the project, it also means that the subject of “Flee” has not been making the promotional rounds over the past year. Early on, when Neon bought the movie out of Sundance and eyed its awards season prospects, it was clear that Rasmussen would need additional help to raise awareness for the project.
Enter Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The “Sound of Metal” Oscar nominee and “Game of Thrones” star signed on as executive producers of the movie shortly after it won the Word Cinema Documentary competition at Sundance. Their names helped raise awareness for the project as it traveled to other festivals throughout last year, winning prizes that spoke to its multi-category potential: “Flee” scored documentary awards from NYFCC and the Gothams as well as three wins at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. Now, the movie is closing in on a trifecta of Oscar categories: As the official Danish Oscar submission, it’s a shoo-in for Best International Feature, and seems likely to clinch nominations for Best Documentary and Best Animated Feature as well. If that happens, it will make history, as would a Best Picture nomination.
Rasmussen credited Ahmed and Coster-Waldau, who also provided an English dub for the international release, for helping to raise the movie’s profile on the campaign trail. “I’d love to have Amin representing the film, but I obviously can’t,” he said in a recent interview. “It means a lot to have someone out there talking about what this film means.”
In separate interviews from Los Angeles and Denmark, Ahmed and Coster-Waldau discussed what attracted them to support the project and how it speaks to wider concerns. These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
INDIEWIRE: How did you first hear about “Flee”?
RIZ AHMED: Suroosh Alvi and Natalie Farrey from Vice brought “Flee” to my attention just before Sundance last year, after they had been involved with my production company’s first film, “Mogul Mowgli.” They said, “Listen, there’s this really special film. We’d love you to take a look at it.” I hadn’t really seen anything like it. We’ve had animated documentaries before and we’ve had rotoscoping on narrative fiction before, but there was something so creatively bold about this.
NICOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU: I heard about it when it won the Sundance Grand Jury prize and realized it would be a big deal in Denmark. Then they called me out of the blue and asked me if I would be interested in voicing Jonas in English. I was blown away when I saw the movie. Documentaries by nature require you to be there and capture things at the moment on film to reflect the moment that they happen. Here, the animation is the opposite of that. It just opened me up to this story being told for the first time.
AHMED: This is firmly a documentary, but it’s stretching the boundaries of what documentaries can do. I think that’s the mark of brilliant films — they stretch the boxes we might place them in and expand the culture. This story at its heart is so vividly brought to life. The frame that is used around Amin’s story is so fascinating: In a way, yes, it takes us into his memories and imagination, but it’s also so honest because the filmmaking process itself is in the film.
COSTER-WALDAU: It’s a low, low budget film. I know it was a real struggle to do the animation because there’s not a lot of money in documentaries. They told me, “Listen, we can’t pay you anything, but we can give you an executive producer credit.” I said, “You don’t have to pay me anything! That is not why I’m doing this.” I cannot take any credit for the film, but it’s a cool thing to be around.
AHMED: This isn’t the sort of documentary where some dude shows up and says, “Hey, let me put a camera on it.” This is a roughly eight-year process of two friends who have known each for 25 years opening up to each other for the first time. I think what’s surprising about it is that relationship between them. That intimacy is at the heart of the story. It is also a love story between Amin and his partner. So often we see survivor or refugee stories painted in these very urgent, bleak colors that rob the subjects of their humanity. This one puts us there with this emotional rollercoaster and their attempts to sabotage their love life, their emotional avoidance. The heart of the story is actually these present-tense relationships, rather than a fetishization of past-tense suffering.
COSTER-WALDAU: In Europe, over the last few years, refugees now have this weird negativity that follows them around. It’s almost like they’re a burden to wherever they end up. The reality is that you’re only a refugee for a while. Eventually, you become a part of wherever you end up. But for some reason, we put this stamp on a refugee. Part of Amin’s story is that he was a refugee, but isn’t any longer. That’s what’s so moving about it.
What’s so cool about this movie is that you get more curious about what it is, and it’s easy to engage with the story as a result. We hear about refugee crises all the time and it’s almost numbing because the tragedies are so horrific. We obviously need to tell these stories to take action and help these people. But it’s easy to close our eyes because it’s overwhelming. We turn on the news in Europe every day and there are new stories. It’s almost like water off a duck’s back. This is one guy’s story, but it has every aspect of life — humor, horror, pain, love — and about this guy accepting who he is.
AHMED: In a way, this is very resonant with the situation in Afghanistan. It’s a timely and important movie, particularly for us in the quote-unquote West, who need to reckon with the legacy of what we walked into and left behind there. But I do think it speaks to something even more universal as a refugee story. Yes, we’re seeing societal instability lead to mass migration all over the world — look at these great migrations that have been taking place in Europe, for example. But it’s more universal than that because it’s about home. It’s a profound psychological portrait. When you’ve been told to flee your whole life, how do you stop running away from a place that could be your home?
COSTER-WALDAU: In Denmark, we all meet refugees. You meet someone and realize, “Oh, so that’s how you ended up here?” I had a friend from Uganda who was the coolest guy, so positive and happy, then found out his past included the most extreme, horrific circumstances. Sometimes you get afraid of the unknown. That’s a natural human reaction. When you meet people who have been through real, extreme hardship, I find it doesn’t make you more hostile; I often find that the opposite is the case.
AHMED: We are all in one way or another migrants in our own lives. The novelist Mohsin Hamid writes that in the book “Exit West,” another amazing refugee love story.We all leave behind versions of our life and find a new version. We all leave behind new versions of ourselves and find new ones. There is always a sense, whether we are refugees or not, searching for a place where we can belong. This story is about looking for belonging, where you’re allowed to be your full, unfiltered self.
COSTER-WALDAU: Jonas creates this bubble of safety around Amin so he can tell this story. We always talk about “small films” and “big films.” Is that just about the budget? Because sometimes the impact can be big for a small film. The emotional impact of “Flee” makes it a big fucking movie. Still, whatever advantage I bring because I was a part of “Game of Thrones,” I’ll take it. Even though I’m not a refugee, we can all relate to aspects of this guy’s experience. At some level in their lives, everybody struggles with their identity, with some loss of feeling that keeps us from revealing ourselves 100 percent.
AHMED: I never lead with the thought of what might be a representational win, or what might add to some social commentary around an issue. I’m driven by the most creatively exciting stories. More often than not, those are the ones that are freshest, most untold, with perspectives and characters we haven’t seen before. And they inevitably end up being something that stretches our culture by adding new forms of representation. My preference for characters we might not have seen before is in some ways quite creatively selfish. Audiences don’t want to go to the cinema for a spoonful of medicine. They want to go and see something fresh with high stakes that they haven’t seen before. Often, by telling those stories, we stretch the culture and expand our idea of who can be represented onscreen. That’s the byproduct.
Whether it’s general audiences or Oscar voters, people do connect to the story. This film transcends language barriers, genre barriers, creative barriers — all the ways in which we might try and categorize it.
COSTER-WALDAU: The Best Picture nominees tend to be the dramas that have the most weight with voters. You don’t see many comedies either. I think it’s a mistake. There are so many great movies in all kinds of genres. Filmmaking is always evolving, and documentaries over the last 10 to 15 years have just grown and expanded into such a vast set of areas. It’s just incredible filmmaking that should be up for Best Picture. Maybe it’ll happen one day. Hey, maybe in 2022.
AHMED: This is one of the things I’ve been proudest to be involved with. The big thing for me is that everything we do at Left Handed Films is about trying to break or bend genres, whether it’s “Mogul Mowgli,” a musical-horror-comedy, or “Flee,” an animated documentary refugee love story. Often, our identities are more hybrid than we realize. I think it’s about time that our cinema is as hybrid as we are.