Danish refugee film ‘Flee’ in spotlight ahead of Oscars

An Oscar-nominated Danish documentary chronicling a gay Afghan refugee’s perilous journey to Europe is in the spotlight ahead of Sunday’s Oscars ceremony as the world witnesses another mass exodus, the millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country.

Danish film director Jonas Poher Rasmussen in Copenhagen
Danish film director Jonas Poher Rasmussen in Copenhagen in February 2022. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

“Flee”, an animated film which is up for three Academy Awards, tries to show that being a refugee is what happens to you, not who you are, its director told AFP.

The Danish film, which is up for three Academy Awards, is in the spotlight ahead of Sunday’s Oscars ceremony as the world witnesses another mass exodus, the millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country.

“I really hope that we can give some nuance and some perspective,” director Jonas Poher Rasmussen told AFP on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Being a refugee is not an identity. It’s a circumstance of life.”

In 2015, “we had Syrian refugees on the highways here in Denmark, and all over Europe. And I felt a need to give these people a human face”, he said.

The idea for the documentary stemmed from a conversation between the 40-year-old director and his childhood friend, dubbed “Amin” in the movie to protect his identity.

Amin arrived as a teenage refugee in Rasmussen’s small village near Copenhagen in 1996.

“The story is told from inside a friendship,” Rasmussen said.

In the beginning, “I didn’t think about making a political film.” But his perspective changed over the 10 years between the film’s conception and the start of production.

Combining 2D, sketch animation and archive newsreel footage, “Flee” is as much a reflection on the agony of a refugee’s flight as the universal theme of man’s quest for a place in the world. 

“I think people can really relate to the universality of the story,” Rasmussen said.

“Most people at some point of their life look for that place where they feel they can be, honestly, who they are”.

The film also evokes parallels with the Taliban’s seizure of power again in Afghanistan last summer.

As a young boy and teenager in the 1980s and 1990s, Amin donned his sister’s dresses and later fantasised about secret crushes, such as Hollywood muscleman Jean-Claude Van Damme.

But he was not able to freely express his homosexuality.

His situation grew even more untenable with the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan in 1990s.

“It’s really a story about someone who’s had to flee himself all his life,” said Rasmussen.

It is “about looking for a place in the world where you can be who you are, with everything that entails, with your sexuality, with your past, and everything else”.

READ ALSO: Danish Oscar hopeful sketches human face of Afghan refugee crisis

Amin spent years not daring to speak about his past and his secrets, building up walls that prevented him from opening up to others. 

Now married, he is thrilled that animation allowed him to tell his story incognito, without everyone he meets having to know his personal traumas and his innermost secrets, the director said.

“Flee”, which won the Sundance festival’s jury prize, has been nominated for three Academy Awards: best international film, best documentary, and best animated feature.

Denmark is known for its ultra-restrictive immigration policy, although it has eased its curbs during the Ukraine war.

Rasmussen said he was surprised by the success of “Flee”.

A former radio documentary-maker, he has made several other films but the success enjoyed by his Danish contemporaries Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg has thus far eluded him.

This is his international breakthrough.

“At the beginning … our criteria for success was going to be a national TV broadcast here (in Denmark). And then the project grew and grew and grew and all of a sudden here we are with three nominations for the Academy Awards.”

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Two streaming services quit production of Danish-language content

Streaming service Viaplay is to stop producing Danish content, following a similar decision by Netflix earlier this year.

Two streaming services quit production of Danish-language content

Viaplay announced the decision in an open letter to the Producentforeningen and Create Danmark unions, which represent producers and film industry workers such as writers.

The two Danish unions recently reached a rights agreement in January which intended to ensure that filmmakers and screenwriters receive a larger share of the profits if a series or film is distributed widely and is successful. 

Both Netflix and TV2 Play have already ceased production of Danish fiction programmes as a result of the agreement.

“Until we have reached a sustainable agreement, we cannot see any immediate alternative than putting further production of Danish fiction projects on hold,” Viaplay chief content officer Filippa Wallestam wrote in the statement.

“In the long term, we hope we can find a viable way so that we can again produce fiction in Denmark and thereby achieve our ambitious goal of becoming the leading provider of Danish-produced films and series,” Wallestam said.

Viaplay’s chief content officer also said that the rights agreement and a new governmental policy requiring production companies to pay 6 percent of their profits as a “cultural contribution” to support Danish public media could make Denmark “a low priority market in relation to investments in local content.”

The cultural contribution is a recent introduction by the government and specifically requires streaming companies to pay a 6 percent levy on their profits in Denmark.

The agreement between Producentforeningen and Create Danmark runs for two years.