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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New wave of Swedish and Danish film rolls into Cannes

A new generation of Scandinavian filmmakers is making waves, following in the footsteps of Ingmar Bergman, Lars von Trier and the Dogme movement, with three directors in competition at Cannes this year.

New wave of Swedish and Danish film rolls into Cannes

Swedish cult director Ruben Ostlund, who won the 2017 Palme d’Or for “The Square”, is back with “Triangle of Sadness”.

He is joined by two other films from rising stars with immigrant backgrounds: “Boy from Heaven”, by Sweden’s Tarik Saleh and Danish-Iranian Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider”.

Scandinavian films have been a fixture at the Cannes Film Festival over the years.

Denmark’s Bille August is one of a handful to win the Palme d’Or twice and Von Trier won the top prize in 2000 for “Dancer in the Dark”, while Bergman was the first-ever recipient of an honorary Palme in 1997 for his body of work.

Nordic filmmakers often “push the limits of cinematographic language,” said Claus Christensen, editor of Danish film magazine Ekko.

“It’s entertainment, but (the goal is) also to challenge the audience. The director has the freedom to explore whatever his artistic vision is,” he told AFP.

Abbasi, 40, is making his second appearance at Cannes, after winning the newcomer’s Un Certain Regard section in 2018 with “Border”, an eccentric troll-fantasy film about a border guard.

His new film “Holy Spider” is the gritty story of a serial killer “cleansing” the Iranian holy city of Mashhad of street prostitutes.

“You can’t pigeonhole him. When you think you have him, he’s a shapeshifter and does something else,” his producer Jacob Jarek told AFP.

Abbasi recently finished filming episodes for the upcoming post-apocalyptic HBO series “The Last of Us”, based on the video game of the same name. That versatility defines others from his generation, said Jarek.

Swedish actress Eva Melander and Danish-Iranian director Ali Abbasi pose as they arrive for the closing ceremony of the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival in 2018. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP

Immigrant perspectives

The previous wave of Danish filmmakers, such as von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, won international acclaim with the Dogme movement, which set strict filmmaking rules aimed at ensuring realism in their films.

But the new generation is “more willing to work with genre, to mix genres: to do comedy and lighter stuff mixed with dark stuff,” said Jarek.

Both Abbasi’s and Saleh’s films draw heavily on their immigrant backgrounds.

Abbasi left Tehran for Sweden in 2002, while Saleh was born in Stockholm to a Swedish mother and Egyptian father.

Saleh’s background was essential to making “Boy from Heaven”, he told AFP.

“I think there’s a reason a lot of directors, historically, have immigrant backgrounds, like (Francis Ford) Coppola and Milos Forman,” the 50-year-old said.

“You’re positioned on the inside and outside of something. In a way, that’s the director’s role… to see both the similarities and the differences.”

Tarik Saleh accepts the World Cinema: Dramatic Grand Jury Prize for his movie “The Nile Hilton Incident” during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival/AFP

Hidden world

“Boy from Heaven” is a dark thriller set in Cairo that follows a poor boy granted a scholarship to the prestigious Al-Azhar University, who finds himself drawn into a brutal power struggle between Egypt’s religious and political elite.

Being an outsider was crucial, Saleh said.  “No one has ever gone into (Al-Azhar University) with a camera before. (An Egyptian filmmaker) would go to prison if they did,” he told AFP.

A former graffiti artist, Saleh grew up with a filmmaker father and worked in his film studio before attending art school in Alexandria.

In addition to directing episodes of “Westworld” and “Ray Donovan”, his 2017 film “The Nile Hilton Incident”, also set in Cairo, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.

Meanwhile, Ostlund, the doyen of the trio with six features under his belt, is bringing his first English-language film to Cannes.

“Triangle of Sadness” is a satire about passengers on a luxury cruise who end up stranded on a deserted island, lampooning the fashion world and ultra-rich, with a scathing criticism of society’s focus on beauty.

By AFP’s Pia Ohlin and Camille Bas-Wohlert