Animating the documentary, with actors voicing the dialogue Amin remembered, helped emphasize this focus on one individual’s story, while the anonymity made it easier for Amin to recount his past. “This is life trauma, and it’s not easy for him to talk about,” Rasmussen said, who hadn’t worked with animation before “Flee.” The fact that Amin isn’t now a public figure, “that he wouldn’t meet people who would know his intimate secrets and traumas, was key for him to feel safe.”
Rasmussen was also drawn to the creative possibilities that animation offers. While he conducted the interviews, the director noticed changes in Amin’s voice. “When he came to things it was difficult for him to talk about, you could feel that he was in another place. I thought we should see that visually,” he said.
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Working with the animation director Kenneth Ladekjaer and the art director Jess Nicholls, he developed a fluid, darkly impressionistic style to convey moments of emotional trauma, such as a terrifying scene when Amin’s sisters are locked in a suffocating container on a ship headed across the Baltic.
Like in the 2008 film “Waltz with Bashir,” which tracks the Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s attempts to recover memories of his own participation in the Lebanon War, animation allowed Rasmussen to recreate a specific past. Rather than relying, as in typical documentary style, on talking heads’s descriptions, Rasmussen could put Amin visibly back in his own ’80s Kabul.
Achieving that kind of narrative authenticity required a precise attention to detail, Nicholls said. Each element in every frame had to be accurate to the time and location: the brand of pot on the stove, the quality of a sunset, even the height of the street curb. Some of that research was conducted by Rasmussen on scouting trips, but Nicholls and her team also spent a lot of time combing archives and libraries. “Finding pre-Taliban footage of Kabul was really difficult,” she said. “I read a lot of books by Russian spies.”
The film’s commitment to emotional truth extends, most effectively, to its main character’s complex interior life. After so many years telling a false version of his family’s story, Amin initially lies to Rasmussen, and he is not always kind or forthcoming to his partner, a Danish man, who is eager to get married and buy a home. Rasmussen’s questioning prompts Amin to recognize that he needs to confront his past before he can commit to his relationship, but the realization and Amin’s sexuality itself — explored through a funny boyhood crush on Jean-Claude Van Damme and an introduction to gay bars that doesn’t go as expected — are handled with a light touch.