Flee

Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s well-received animated documentary Flee tells the powerful and complex life story of Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym), who escaped from Afghanistan as a child refugee. After the Russian-backed communist regime fell to the U.S.-backed Mujahideen in 1992, his family’s only avenue of escape was to Moscow, where they faced persecution and the continual threat of deportation and certain death back in Afghanistan.

From there, the family faced a harrowing struggle to reach safety in the West. The film also tells the story of Amin’s struggle as an adult to learn to trust people after his ordeal and open up to a relationship with his new husband Casper.Veteran Danish editor Janus Billeskov Jansen, who spent his first 25 years as an editor working on flatbed editors before digital editing even came along, reports that he first started working with Rasmussen when the young director was still in school and then served a consultant on other films hedid professionally afterward. “So, when this film came up, itwas quite natural that he approached  me. He knew me quite well,” Jansen says.

Rasmussen and his subject had actually been friends since they attended school together in Denmark, and in time, ‘Amin’ eventually shared his story with his friend. When Jansen got involved, the director had already filmed several interviews  with Amin over the course of years and come to the conclusion that animation was the way to tell the story – a decision that was driven in part by Amin’s desire to remain anonymous.

Jansen explains that they basically started out with just the audio tracks from his interviews and black-and-white sketches. “It’s like editing a radio piece on which you put animated stuff at the same time,” he says. “So, it’s two things working parallel, and we worked [like that] for six or seven months.” He adds that some of the footage is actually animated on top of Rasmussen’s original video footage, including the movie’s opening shots of Amin talking on the couch and certain scenes with Amin and
his fiancée reuniting at the end.

He recalls that in those early animatics they were building up the story “and the psychological understanding of Amin as a child going into his teens and actually fleeing and [living] through all these terrible things up to his arrival in Denmark.” Jansen explains that they also had to stay within a strict budget, meaning the the picture was basically locked when they signed off on those black-and-white animatics for animation to begin. It was a unique process for the editor as this was his first big, animated film. “You have to imagine how it’s going to look and how long [each shot] should stay on the screen,” he says. “And what is the pause from a question to an answer. That needs to be done very exactly in the editing.”

During production, the filmmakers screened some of those early black-and-white animatics for close friends and colleagues, and Jansen recalls that people were quite moved by the storytelling. But that actually scared him. “I got scared because I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, if these people could get so moved by that animatic, what will actually happen when it gets to full, color 2D animation? Will the story disappear?’ And I was really scared. But it turned out that itactually made it even better. It was fascinating for me as an editor, how little you can show and leave to the audience’s own imagination. That’s fantastic. Basically, that’s what you’re doing in all editing – opening up the window and giving opportunities for the audience to fill in the gaps, so to speak, with their own life experience.”

Jansen and Rasmussen worked closely with animationdirector Kenneth Ladekjær (co-founder and director at Sun Creature) and art director Jess Nicholls throughout the process.“They are strong storytellers,” Jansen says. “For the last month or so, we were sitting next door to each other and[sending] scenes back and forth. ‘These are the words; how can you navigate this? In a wide shot? What about if we change that angle?’ It was an inspiring collaboration.”

Interspersed throughout the film, certain historical moments are depicted using vintage stock footage, including footage from Afghanistan in the 1980s and ’90s. At one point in the movie, when Amin is trying to flee to Sweden aboard a rickety old ship after paying a hefty price to human traffickers, the ship is intercepted and diverted to Estonia where he finds himself interred in a dismal refugee camp. Amin had mentioned the experience during his initial interviews, butby a stroke of luck, the filmmakers managed to find footageof the actual incident from a Finnish TV crew. “That was a fantastic coincidence,” says Jansen. “Then we had to go back and have more conversations with Amin about that.” In the end, Rasmussen ended up doing a number of additional interviews with the protagonist, which Jansen says gave them “a bigger and a more emotional understanding” of his situation.

It was a complicated story to tell – a child fleeing at such a young age and growing up all too soon not trusting people, and then detailing his life and relationships as an adult. But probably the biggest challenge was finding the ending for the film. “As it is in any documentary film, it’s very seldom that you really know what the ending of the film is. I always find that it’s so much more difficult to edit a documentary.… You use 90 or 95 percent of the actual editing time looking for the ending,” Jansen relates.

“One thing that I’m very proud of is that I feel that there’s a certain simplicity into it that I’m very fond of. And simplicity is a key word for me because I think the simplicity is the most difficult thing to put into a film and into the editing and into storytelling,” he says “Jonas really was a fantastic collaborator,and it has been a fantastic experience.”

Overall, Jansen hopes that people see it as a documentary that happens to be animated. “We have to be honest to the truth, we have to be honest to the main characters, of course. We cannot just invent anything,” he concludes.

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