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‘Flee’ makes Oscar history, and resonates with the refugee crises

The movie is the first to be nominated in the documentary, animated and international feature categories

A scene from the Oscar-nominated animated documentary “Flee,” directed by Jonah Poher Rasmussen. (Neon)

Jonas Poher Rasmussen is the uncommon filmmaker who, under just the right circumstances, openly does not oppose a person pirating his movie.

“It’s very difficult, with the current situation in Afghanistan, to be allowed to show a film about a gay Afghan refugee” there, Rasmussen says of “Flee,” his affecting documentary about a longtime friend’s harrowing journey out of Kabul. “But,” he adds wryly, “I really hope that someone will find a way to download it illegally and put it on a wall somewhere.”

The amiable Rasmussen, speaking by Zoom from New York, says “Flee” has not screened in Russia — where the story is partly set — and he doesn’t know of any screenings in Afghanistan, where the traumatic tale begins. But the Danish director’s film has managed to gain plaudits on the global festival circuit from Sydney to Jerusalem to London to Hong Kong after picking up a grand jury prize at last year’s Sundance. It now streams free with a Hulu subscription, or for a fee elsewhere.

And Sunday in Hollywood, Rasmussen is scheduled to be at the Academy Awards ceremony, where “Flee” is up for best documentary feature, best animated feature and best international feature film — the first movie to achieve that nomination trifecta.

Rasmussen can attend the Oscars knowing that no other film in contention has found greater relevance to hot-spot headlines since its release — first because of last summer’s U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, now with the humanitarian crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with as many as 10 million refugees seeking safe relocation.

“It’s rare to get a film that is so timely and speaks so much to world events and the moment we’re living in right now,” Riz Ahmed, the actor and rapper who’s an executive producer on the movie, says via email.

Primarily through animation, “Flee” recounts the story of the pseudonymous Amin Nawabi, who as a young boy escaped Afghanistan’s civil war as the mujahideen gained power more than three decades ago. His family spent many long, tense months in Russia before they gradually split up to make their way to Western Europe — casting their perilous fate to human traffickers and immigration officials.

“I really wish it wouldn’t be as relevant,” says Rasmussen, noting that for the real “Amin,” last year’s U.S. withdrawal “was just heartbreaking because he has relatives in Afghanistan and a lot of memories came back, and he could see a new generation of Afghans being in the same kind of limbo he was in for years.”

Review: The documentary ‘Flee’ is mesmerizing — and told almost entirely in animation

The film not only illustrates the terrors of a refugee’s physical flight but also illuminates how such an uprooted youth can break one’s sense of identity — particularly when safe passage depends on deception, even living in denial about the fate of one’s family.

“Flee” especially resonates when it questions the definition of home — of belonging — once one’s foundation is rocked. What constitutes a safe place to exist, in body and spirit? “There is nothing more universal than home,” Ahmed says. “It’s something we can all relate to as an audience.”

Nawabi would end up in a tiny Danish town, where he met Rasmussen at age 16. They became close and have now been friends for a quarter-century, but it would be years before Nawabi felt safe enough to share his full experiences with him. “These stories are so traumatic for him,” says the Copenhagen-based director, who calls their conversational process an “unburdening” that was “a big relief for him.”

The real “Amin” generally shuns the public eye — he declines most interview requests, and a representative for the film said he was not available for this article — yet animation allows him to be depicted while maintaining anonymity. And because “Flee” does not use the hyper-realistic visuals of live action, “Amin is not just Amin,” Rasmussen says — his animated avatar more readily “represents every refugee.” (The director notes he was inspired by the Oscar-nominated animated 2008 war documentary “Waltz With Bashir.”)

Rasmussen says one theme he emphasized was that a person’s status as a refugee should not define who they are. The director wants viewers to appreciate that the real-life Amin is now an accomplished man in a loving relationship in his adopted land, long after Hollywood films inspired some of his early fantasies about men, as depicted in “Flee.” “He is an academic. He’s also a house owner and a husband and a cat-lover and someone who had a sexual awakening watching Jean-Claude Van Damme.”

Rasmussen is heartened by the open response to “Flee” at festivals: “I’ve been approached at screenings around the world where people come to me and say: ‘This is not just his story — this is my story.’ ”

“I really believe in storytelling as a way to understand ourselves, and our art is kind of doing that,” he says. “Personally, being able to work on these subjects about war and love and hate and death and all these things, you know — I think it’s really what keeps me sane, as well.”

Meanwhile, Rasmussen is encouraged by how some countries have opened their borders — “their homes, their hearts” — to Ukrainian refugees.

“I really hope that this is a change in how we perceive refugees in general,” he says, “not just from Ukraine but also from Afghanistan and Syria and Myanmar and wherever in the world people are forced to flee.”

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