What the film Flee reveals about family, home and stories that are hard to tell The film Flee opens with a question: "What does the word 'home' mean to you?" For Amin Nawabi, the answer is complicated.

'Flee' creators on being a refugee: It's not an identity, it's a circumstance of life

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The movie "Flee" has already made Oscars history. It's nominated for best documentary, animated feature and international film. "Flee" tells the story of a boy whose family left Afghanistan in the 1990s. As an adult, he reveals the truth of that journey, which he has told almost no one. That truth could put him and his family in danger, so the movie gives him a pseudonym, Amin Nawabi. He agreed to give us his first interview with a news outlet, along with the director of "Flee," Jonas Poher Rasmussen. A key part of the movie is the long friendship between these two men, so I asked them to begin by telling us about that. Amin went first.

AMIN NAWABI: I think Jonas was one of the first friends that I made in Denmark. And we used to take the bus to train station and then to the high school where we went to school together.

JONAS POHER RASMUSSEN: And I'd say I noticed Amin before he noticed me because I grew up in this very small, rural village. But I noticed him one day on the train because at the time we didn't have a lot of refugees in the area. And Amin was so well-dressed. He really stood out. And I remember thinking to myself, man, that guy looks cool. And then I was kind of surprised that we got off at the same bus stop, you know? And then we started meeting up at this bus up every morning.

NAWABI: And since then, we have been quite involved in each other's lives. We have celebrated New Year's evening each year. We travel together. We experience a lot of intimate moments, such as heartbreaks and falling in love at the same time and experiencing a lot of joys but also missed joys moments. And we always supported each other and always disclosed personal, intimate topics. So there was always this easy approach.

SHAPIRO: You've been so close for so long and been through so much together. And also, there was this secret that, Amin, you were keeping from Jonas, from almost everybody in your life.

NAWABI: Yes. I was quite hesitant to talk about it, and I managed somehow to keep it to myself for a really long time. But, of course, I mean, with Jonas, I always felt comfortable. And I think he was the first person among my friends that I disclosed that I was gay. And it was not very long after we met each other. So there was - I felt comfortable in Jonas' company. And it is also not surprising that I decided to tell him my story.

SHAPIRO: I want us to be able to speak freely, and so I'm going to disclose something that could be considered a spoiler, although it comes relatively early in the film, which is that the human traffickers who helped you get to Europe told you you had to say that your family had all died in Afghanistan and that you were alone. Otherwise you might not get refugee status. And in fact, we learn in the film your family is alive, and they are living in other European countries. Jonas, when you learned that truth that had been hidden from you by your close friend for so many years, how did you react?

POHER RASMUSSEN: I was, of course, thrilled. And I think, you know, I had expected to hear really bad stories because there were these rumors going around in high school, you know, that, you know, Amin had walked all the way from Afghanistan to Denmark and that he had seen all of his family getting killed. So I think when we started talking about Amin's story, I kind of had prepared myself that I was going to hear some really harrowing things. And this was really one of the, like, moments, you know, to understand how close he still was with his family and that they still met up. And to understand that he had a lot of family around in Europe and that they could meet up still was really happy, I mean, of course.

SHAPIRO: Amin, you say in the film that at one point an ex-boyfriend who you told the truth to tried to blackmail you with that information. Now that the story is public, even though you are still using a pseudonym and you're concealed by animation in the film, do you feel a sense of freedom or fear? Or what's the experience?

NAWABI: I definitely feel a sense of freedom. I think it's quite limiting to not be able to disclose intimate information about yourself to your friends, to people that you care about. It is quite difficult because I always had to stop myself from telling something that I wanted to tell. I - sometimes we did something that reminded me of my family, something I did together with my family. And I wanted to share that information. But I was always prevented because of this false narrative that I didn't have any family. So that was quite difficult to not be able to share this kind of information. So, yes, I feel very free. And also, I feel that my friends - they know me for who I am.

SHAPIRO: We're seeing another refugee crisis right now as Ukrainians flee into Poland. Is there something beyond your own story that you hope people take away from this film?

NAWABI: I think what is happening in Ukraine is horrible and heartbreaking. And in many ways, this is something that - I empathize with what is happening with people who are fleeing. And it just reminds me of my family's situation. It is, in a way, also really hard to process and see this because you really can imagine what you're feeling because you've been there yourself and your family there. And at the same time, I think it has been amazing how everybody have been welcoming and being kind and providing help. And I was also very happy that there were so many positive stories and, like, personal stories humanizing refugees. But at the same time, I was quite puzzled by the different ways that refugees from Ukraine and refugees from Syria and Afghanistan were treated.

SHAPIRO: Puzzled is a kind way of phrasing it.

NAWABI: Puzzled in a way that - there were very stark differences how, for example, refugees back in 2015 were welcomed in European countries. It was, to a certain extent, very hostile. So I hope that people just think that this can happen to anyone. I mean, it can happen in our backyard. And it's important to be kind and help people.


POHER RASMUSSEN: You know, this really came from our friendship. And because of that, I really hope it brings some nuance to the refugee story because, you know, Amin is a refugee, but - he was a refugee. He's not anymore, and he's so much more now. You know, he's also an academic. He's also a house owner and a husband and a cat owner and all these things that kind of - you know...

NAWABI: Two cats.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Two cats.

POHER RASMUSSEN: Two cats, yeah. So there's all these things. And so I refrain from defining people just by being refugee because it's not an identity. It's a circumstance of life, and it's something you go through. And as Amin said, it's something that can happen to everyone. And I hope this really creates a change in how we perceive refugees, no matter where they come from, in the future.

SHAPIRO: Jonas, the friendship is so central to this film. Can you tell us about the first time you met Amin's family after all of these years that you had known him so well?


SHAPIRO: You haven't.



POHER RASMUSSEN: I'm still waiting - yeah, we were hoping for, you know, a big wedding when him and Kasper got married, a big Afghan wedding with everything. But then, you know, this pandemic hit, and it was a very low-key wedding instead - just the closest friends. So I haven't met them, actually.

SHAPIRO: Amin, when is this going to happen?

NAWABI: Well, I mean, the wedding...

SHAPIRO: I mean the family meeting, not the wedding - the family meeting.

NAWABI: (Laughter) The family meeting - hopefully soon.

SHAPIRO: We've been talking with Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the director of the Danish film "Flee," and also the star of the documentary, who goes by Amin Nawabi. "Flee" is the first film ever to be nominated for Best Documentary, Best International Film and Best Animated Feature. You can find it on Hulu. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for talking with us.

NAWABI: Thank you.

POHER RASMUSSEN: Thank you for having us.


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