Flee’s Oscar-Nominated Director Picks His Favorite Animated, Documentary and International Films

Photo: Neon

For To run away director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Hollywood’s film festival and awards season is more than just a chance to claim (well-deserved) accolades. This is an opportunity for the Danish filmmaker, an avowed nerd, to rub shoulders with other film lovers, from Guillermo del Toro to Kristen Stewart via his Scandinavian compatriot Joachim Trier.

Combining evocatively drawn animation with the real-life story of refugee Amin – a pseudonym of a friend of Rasmussen, anonymously revealing his story of fleeing Afghanistan to Russia and Denmark –To run away made Oscar history by becoming the first title nominated in three major categories: animated film, documentary and international film, the latter being this year’s Danish entry. It’s also notable for centering a queer protagonist without, as Rasmussen puts it, exoticism or overemphasis on his homosexuality. The manager said The audiovisual club on the universality of To run awayhis cinematic influences and what he hopes for the future of international cinema.

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The AV Club: Congratulations on many well-deserved awards for To run away. How does it feel to be nominated for an Oscar?

Jonas Poher Rasmussen: It’s crazy, really. It really started with a simple conversation between Amin and me in my living room in Copenhagen almost ten years ago. At first we just thought it could be shown on local TV in Denmark. So to be here in Hollywood 10 years after that is of course amazing and awesome. And this story is so important to me. This is a very personal story for a very dear friend of mine. To see how people reacted to it, that people really integrate it and understand what he went through, how it affects refugees, especially in these times, it becomes very meaningful to spread these kinds of stories.

AVC: Now that you’re here in Hollywood rubbing shoulders with other Oscar nominees, do you remember your initial expectations for the reception of this film?

JRP: It was truly a project that grew and grew and grew. It started with this conversation and… later we would feel like we were doing something special. But you know, I’ve had this feeling before and other people haven’t felt the same way about it. So, of course, when the movie premiered at Sundance, we had some really amazing reviews and amazing reactions for the movie. And that’s kind of where we saw, okay, maybe we did something special and maybe we can go all the way. But still, I think we must have pinched our arm when we got [Oscar] appointments a month ago. It was remarkable. I’ve met some great people, people whose movies I’ve seen, and it’s an incredible honor to be among them.

AVC: What was your favorite moment, To run away in countries around the world?

JRP: We need two favorite moments. One meets other filmmakers; I think especially after the pandemic, meeting the audience and seeing how the audience reacts to the story has been really amazing and meaningful. Having those instances where people come up to you at screenings and [say]”It’s not just Amin’s story, it’s also my story,” was really, really meaningful.

But on a personal level, too, the Oscars lunch was just crazy. You know, I was at a table with Guillermo del Toro who gave me a big hug. And right behind me were Billie Eilish and Kristen Stewart. You know, coming from rural Denmark, that’s really something. Everyone was just there to celebrate cinema. And the last two years of being apart and now finally being able to be together and celebrate movies again was really emotional.

AVC: Hollywood’s awards season creates this confluence of international filmmakers, in conversation and in “competition”. Is there anything you learned from American cinema or that American filmmakers should learn from Scandinavian cinema?

JRP: For me, American cinema is a bit of what I grew up with: how to tell a story, the clarity, the brilliance and the craft. The game! But that being said, of course, there are other ways to tell stories as well. The Academy [honors] different types of stories – to see Parasite, which I thought was incredible, one of the masterpieces of the last decade, getting the recognition it deserves at the Oscars I think was magnificent. And I also hope that because the world is getting smaller and we’re more and more connected in different ways, through social media and in different ways, I hope that continues and we start seeing movies from countries in Africa and South America and all over the world too. Because I think the sense of connectedness is really important not just for cinema, but for the world in general.

AVC: What about queer stories and characters in film? Are we at a turning point with authentic LGBTQ representation in films around the world?

JRP: I really hope. I think it’s amazing to see, you know, this year we have two LGBTQ movies in the animation category [Flee and The Mitchells Vs. The Machines]-where we have two protagonists who are gay and not in a way where it’s a thing. It’s just a natural part of who they are, not like, we have to point it out.

I didn’t really think Amin being gay would be a big part of this story at first. Because he came out to me when I was 17, so that was always a natural part of who he was. But then, talking to him about his own concerns about his own family, I thought, okay, we need to make room for that story in the movie as well. But it was super important to me that it felt natural. It wasn’t anything exotic. You know, when you meet her boyfriend, it’s okay, it’s just two people, they kiss. This is how it should be.

Amin and Kasper in Flee, the animated documentary of Neon by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Amin and Kasper in Flee, the animated documentary of Neon by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Stroke: Because To run away is nominated in these three categories at the Oscars – a first in the history of the Academy – I wanted to ask you about your cinematic influences. What animated films, documentaries, then, let’s say, “international” inspired you and the making of To run away?

JRP: The evidence [influence for Flee] East Waltz with Bashir, which is this animated doc released in 2009, also dealing with trauma. It’s really the film that I saw where I understood that it could be done. I had never really heard of animated documentaries before, so this movie was really mind blowing in a way, how you can deal with trauma and talk about things that are really hard to talk about. Waltz with Bashir talks about trauma and genocide, and because it’s animated, I was like, okay, I can sit on that, I can listen to what’s being said. And it doesn’t get too much. The way they could use animation to create a more emotional space at times was really powerful. So that one was really a big inspiration for me.

But I grew up with animation. I loved [Hayao] Miyazaki’s films, of course. And Disney and Pixar. And then for the documentary, I was amazed by The act of killing. It’s actually a movie from the same production company that To run away was made in, so I’m a bit biased. I was in the business at the time, and this movie was just one of those experiences where you sit down after and don’t get up at the movies. I have never seen anything like it before. This film [created] a big change in me in the way of telling stories. And for “international” cinema, one of my great heroes is [Oscar-]also nominated: Joachim Trier for The worst person in the world. I’ve seen his films since I was in film school; Reprise and particularly Oslo, August 31 [are] very, very close to my heart. I did a movie in film school that was almost a rip off of one of his movies – just, like, a sequence, not a complete rip off. But I was very inspired by that. There is such a warmth, tone and personality in his films that strikes me as somewhere special. Joachim Trier… we feel that there is such a deep affection for his characters in all his films. And he just has a very playful way of telling you stories that I find very inspiring.

Stroke: What is To run away learn about your creative process or about yourself, which you could integrate into future projects?

JRP: Animation is a very different process from the documentaries I’ve done before because you have to be very precise. Because animation is so expensive, you need to know exactly how to tell your story before you start animating anything. And this post, I think, was really an eye-opener for me. Before, I liked to do things a bit rock ‘n’ roll, kind of figuring out how to do things along the way. Which also has its advantages. But here I think I found a place where I understand how to tell a story and [know how] to start and finish it. So the perception of cinema in animation is really something that I want to bring to my new projects. And of course, with all the success of To run away, there have been door openings that were not open to me before. So I have a few ideas I’m going to jump on when I’m done with the whole campaign. It’s quite difficult to focus on anything else these last few months!

AVC: Well, we can’t wait to see what you do next. And possibly with Guillermo del Toro!

JRP: Yeah, I would love to! He’s an amazing guy.

Darcy J. Skinner