"I wasn't afraid of wearing my sister's dresses," notes the adult Amin (a pseudonym, still image above), recalling his early childhood in Kabul in the late 1980s. He also reveals he'd had a big crush on Jean-Claude van Damme, whose poster hung over his bed and sometimes winked at the boy.
"In Afghanistan, homosexuals didn't exist. There wasn't even a word for them. They brought shame to a family," he also notes.
These memories occur near the beginning of Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen's extraordinary Flee, an animated tale of a young man's harrowing escape with what remained of his family from Afghanistan to Russia and finally, accidentally, by himself as a teen, to Copenhagen.
In this city new to him, Amin, without friends and relatives, wound up going to high school with Rasmussen, who became his pal. Decades later this project evolved. Amin, after much persuasion, allowed himself to be interviewed over many sessions, telling his true story in complete detail to another soul for the very first time.
His secrecy, a life kept hidden from even his current lover, was born out of fear. The one person he had slightly opened up to previously, a former boyfriend, threatened to turn Amin over to the authorities after a fight. Our hero, and Amin is definitely one, finally agreed to this venture only if his identity remained obscured. This is why Rasmussen employed various styles of animation intermixed with actual news footage to tell this tale.
The result is one the more engaging film experiences of this past year. Besides its queerdom and its ability to move you to well-earned tears, Flee is not without its moments of humor. Moreover, the result is that this Danish export has made Oscar history by being nominated for Best Animation, Best Documentary, and Best International Feature. That's no shock if you check the film's award category on IMDB.com where it's already won or been nominated for more than 100 such honors, from Melbourne to Jerusalem to Sundance.
The following is from a ten-minute Zoom chat I had recently with the tastefully bearded director.
Brandon Judell: So I've been looking at your other films or at least the trailers of your other films. Before we address Flee, your What He Did (2015) is a documentary about a gay man who killed his lover of 13 years, a famous Danish author and outspoken gay activist. Since I can't google anything about you, your personal autobiography being apparently nonexistent, are you married or can the gay community embrace you?
Jonas Poher Rasmussen: I am married. I have a wife and I have two daughters, yeah.
You're the third director with a wife and two children whom I've interviewed this year who's made a gay-themed film. A new trend possibly. That aside, why did Flee's Amin feel so able to open up to you about his homosexuality, or in Denmark is that not a problem?
In parts of Denmark, being gay is a problem. And in parts it's not. It's a little bit like here in the States. But you know I've known Amin since we were fifteen. He came out to me when he was sixteen, so his sexuality has always been a natural part of him for me. I guess it's never been a big deal.
Consequently, I really wanted it to feel the same in the film, that it should be natural that he was gay. But in the process of making the film, I realized that in all of his childhood in Afghanistan, being gay was something he couldn't be open about. I saw that that kind of mirrored in the story of him coming to Denmark and not being able to be honest about his past. [Amin lied to the authorities that his whole family had been murdered in Afghanistan to gain immigrant status in Denmark.] So there's always been a part of him that he’s had to hide. That’s why the film is called Flee; it's about a guy who's had to flee all his life.
Have many gay folk or escapees from Afghanistan come to you and said, "God, you really moved me." I was near tears the first time I was watching Flee.
Yes, I've had quite a few, both from a [Middle Eastern] background and from gay people coming to me and saying they really were moved seeing Flee. Especially by refugees who told me that that this is not just Amin's story, it's also their story. And I had a young queer man in Mexico coming to me saying that being queer in Mexico isn't easy, and he just felt safe for one-hour-and-a half hours with Amin, which was really beautiful. So it's been very rewarding to meet the audience around the world.
Considering your past and present work, you seem to have concentrated on underdogs and/or people who have lots of problems. How are you expressing yourself with these stories. It must be something that clicks within you.
Yeah, I think I have a soft spot for marginalized people and trying to figure out how people cope with being in a difficult situation. I'm really trying to humanize these people for others. That's what I’m trying to do here, and I've done it hopefully.
When you accept the Oscar for best documentary, do you think Amin will come out then? Would he accompany you or do you think he's always going to be secretive?
Well, if we're going to be in the race, he will still be anonymous I'm quite sure. With all the successful the film has gained these last months, I think he's more and more assured that he made the right choice of being anonymous because you know he doesn't want to be victimized. He told me that in the very beginning of doing this, I don't want to feel like victim. He really doesn't want look upon himself like that.