In a small rural village of just over 500 people, Amin Nawabi arrived when he was just a 16-year-old teenager. As an Afghan refugee, he was taken into the European country where he was cared for by a foster family.
On the way to school, he almost always ran into another 15-year-old, Jonas Poher Rasmussen. “We started meeting at the bus stop every morning. We became friends,” the Danish filmmaker tells Indiewire.
“I was always curious to know how he got there, but he never wanted to talk about it, and of course I respected him.” Even so, rumors quickly spread in small circles. It was said that the young man saw his whole family die and walked as far as Denmark.
The friendship continues to this day, and eventually Amin – a pseudonym created to maintain anonymity – would eventually reveal his entire past. Not just Rasmussen, but the whole world.
The story, adapted into an animated film, was so successful that it eventually found its way into the Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. They also managed to garner financial support from Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who joined the project as executive producers.
“Flee” is a summary of the dramatic life of a young homosexual who has fought against prejudice, Taliban violence, the dangerous illegal journey to Europe and the difficulties of growing up and graduating in a foreign country with a foreign language. Today Amin is a recognized academic, has a partner and is happy. And that’s also why he chose to tell his story, although he prefers to keep his identity a secret.
“15 years ago I asked him if he would do a radio documentary about his story. said no But he also told me that he knows he has to do it at some point – and when the time came he would let me know,” says the director and screenwriter.
That day finally came and the collaboration resulted in Flee – A Fuga, a kind of hybrid: it’s a film, it’s animated and it’s also a documentary. This facet helped make history and was nominated for each of the three categories of Best Foreign Language Film, Best Documentary and Best Animated Film.
The recognition comes months after the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Foreign Films in the Documentary category. He repeated his success (and praise) at the various festivals he attended.
Rasmussen eventually got Amin to agree to tell his life story. “Thanks to the animation, which allowed him to remain anonymous, he said yes in the end,” he says. “It touches on traumatic experiences that aren’t easy to process, so he didn’t want to do a normal film. Then he would have to meet people on the street who knew his most intimate traumas and secrets.”
Amin lived with his family in Afghanistan, where they faced the difficulties of the Soviet invasion and subsequent Taliban takeover. They would eventually decide to flee the country with the help of human traffickers. Determination? Russia, the only country that issued visas to Afghan travelers.
I was only 11 years old and Russia was an unfriendly place. “It was a strange place, it was right after the wall came down [de Berlim] and there was much corruption. The Russian police put pressure on them and asked for money, they took advantage of their situation,” says Rasmussen of Amin’s time in Russia, where they rarely left the apartment. They were regularly abused and badly treated by the authorities and even by the population.
The goal was to reach Sweden, where they had a family that supported them financially. They tried several times to cross the border without success. Amin eventually traveled to Denmark alone at the age of 16, with the help of traffickers who advised him as soon as he arrived in the country to lie: to say that his entire family had been killed. This was not true: some family members stayed in Russia and later traveled to the United States. Except for his father, who was captured by Taliban guerrillas while still in Kabul and never seen again.
“When refugees arrive here today, they are told they can stay, but as soon as an opportunity arises, they are turned back. You can’t build a life with that,” explains Rasmussen. “They end up in a kind of limbo for years, not knowing what their future will be like. I think the film is just that for me, a story about trust and how trust in ourselves and others creates values.”
The film is based on a recreation of all the scenes detailed by Amin. The sound, voices are all by Amin and Rasmussen, recorded in several interviews taped at their home. The first was the most intense: the filmmaker asked his friend to lie down, close his eyes and imagine his path.
“I asked him to give me all the details, to describe the places to me so that we could have as much detail as possible. As he described the house to me, I asked him, “How was the garden? What plants did you have? What colors were the walls?’ Everything,” he recalls. “This gave the animators a lot of material to create [os cenários]. He saw everything before his eyes and the memories came flooding back. And in the end I relived the moments, more than just told about them.”
The technique used by Rasmussen is an old radio technique, he worked in radio for several years. “When you’re doing radio you don’t have pictures, so you need the guy to paint the scene for you,” he tells Indiewire. Anonymity was a non-negotiable clause of the project. Only Rasmussen knows who Amin really is. “I would love it if he could be here, but it’s impossible. Of course we talked about what I would say and not say [nas entrevistas]. He’s very open and says as long as he doesn’t reveal who he is or where he lives, I have complete freedom to talk about anything.”
All that is known about Amin is that she still lives in Denmark with her husband and has freed herself from the anxieties of refugee life. He also managed to reunite with his mother before her death – she, who had not accompanied him on the trip to Sweden and Denmark. The Muslim family would eventually accept their sexuality as well.