An animated documentary tells the story of Amin, an Afghan refugee

The simple black-and-white animation shows a pair of legs running, soon joined by others. The perspective changes to reveal a mother pulling her child along as buildings collapse around them. A voice asks: “What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?” Softly, another responds: “Home…it’s someplace safe.” There is a pause, then the first voice speaks again. “Close your eyes and take a deep breath and relax completely.” Now the animation style switches to something more colourful, rich and realistic. A man looks straight ahead, braced to recall his traumatic odyssey.

“Flee”, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s arresting documentary, weaves together animation, archive footage and personal testimony. It follows Amin (a pseudonym), an Afghan refugee, as he reflects on the experience of escaping danger. He left Kabul with his mother and siblings as a child and made a perilous journey across countries and continents before settling in Europe. The film begins on the eve of his wedding to his Danish partner, Kasper.

Mr Rasmussen and Amin have been friends for 25 years after meeting on a bus in Denmark as teenagers, which gives the film a candid and intimate quality. The Danish film-maker has a background in radio documentaries and used an interview technique whereby subjects lie down and, with their eyes closed, describe their memories in the present tense, paying attention to the details of how things looked, smelled and felt.

Amin wanted to protect the privacy of his family, some of whom had moved back to Afghanistan. The pair alighted on the idea of telling his story via animation, which would allow Amin to use his own voice while maintaining his anonymity. In one scene, three-year-old Amin runs freely through the street of Kabul in his sister’s blue nightgown, playing the skittering synth-pop of A-ha’s “Take On Me” through pink headphones. In another, colourful kites soar across the sky. Later, he fantasises about Jean-Claude Van Damme, a Hollywood actor, who winks back at him from the bedroom poster. Mr Rasmussen says he included these pop-culture touchstones to connect his own childhood experiences with Amin’s, and to remind audiences to focus on similarity rather than difference.

Beautiful as the animation is, Mr Rasmussen has said that historical footage is equally important to the film: “Every time you see a newsreel, you are reminded that this is, at heart, a documentary.” He scoured YouTube for videos showing everyday life in Afghanistan and Moscow (where Amin’s family relocated first) in the 1980s and 1990s, such as throngs of Russians queuing for the opening of the first McDonald’s. “It’s creating a historical context for the movie, but it’s also telling the audience that this story is real—it’s not fiction.”

The film has won several accolades. At the Sundance Film Festival in January it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary section. Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, two Hollywood actors, have signed on as executive producers and will voice the lead roles in a forthcoming English-dubbed version. It should be finished in time for the Academy Awards: “Flee” has been selected to represent Denmark in the Best International Feature Film category.

Mr Rasmussen hopes the film will encourage more empathy at home, where the government takes a hardline approach to migrants. Mette Frederiksen, the prime minister, has announced a goal of having “zero asylum-seekers”. In June the parliament passed a law allowing immigration authorities to deport asylum-seekers outside of Europe and the government hopes to repatriate Syrian refugees to Damascus. (An appeals board has often sided with refugees.)

Given the continued upheaval in Afghanistan and Syria, it is an apt time to release “Flee”. Yet the director is keen to point out that being a refugee is a circumstance and not an identity; his own ancestors were Russian-Jewish refugees in the early 20th century. “I think we have forgotten history a little bit,” he says. “This is something that can happen to everyone.”

“Flee” is screening in American cinemas now. It will be released in Britain in February

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