SIFF DocFest: A-ha: The Movie and Flee

A panorama of the inside of the Egyptian Theatre

Like all movie theaters in the US, SIFF was hit hard when the pandemic arrived. SIFF Cinema Uptown, SIFF Cinema Egyptian, and SIFF Film Center closed on March 13, and while other local theaters and theater chains have since reopened (such as AMC, Regal, Majestic Bay, The Grand Illusion, and Northwest Film Forum), the SIFF theaters have remained closed. Like other nonprofits, they hosted virtual films and even a virtual film festival during this time, but until two days ago, you couldn’t see a film at one of their theaters. Something else that SIFF didn’t have until two days ago was a documentary film festival.

Running September 30-October 7, DocFest is meant to reopen the Egyptian Theatre in style, and while I didn’t go to the opening night film, I did receive a screener for it (though it might’ve been fun to see people dressed up in 80s attire). The film was A-ha: The Movie, about the band known for their number one hit and karaoke vocal cord killer, “Take On Me.”

First, let’s discuss what the movie does right. It covers a-ha’s career in detail, at times employing the animation made famous in their “Take On Me” video. It goes into the creation of “Take On Me,” from a riff their keyboardist wrote when he was 14-15 (which the other members of the band called the “Juicy Fruit Song” because it reminded them of the commercial) to the several failed iterations of the song (and even one failed music video attempt) to the final version of the song and its iconic video. It deals frankly with their disagreements and differences of opinion, as well as their artistic failings once fame came calling and they had to decide whether to repeat their initial success or forge a new path – and depending on which album we’re talking about, they tried both approaches.

So why is this a-ha documentary merely OK?

Let’s start with who was interviewed. We mainly hear from the band members: lead vocalist Morten Harket, keyboardist Magne Furuholmen, and guitarist Pål Waktaar-Savoy. We also hear (briefly) from their managers, Magne’s wife Heidi Rydjord, Pål’s wife Lauren Savoy, Morten’s girlfriend Inez Andersson, and their long-time photographer Just Loomis. And while we hear from Alan Tarney (who helped record the final version of “Take On Me”), Jeff Ayeroff (who saw potential in the song) and Steve Barron (whom he hired to direct the iconic video) we don’t hear from actress Bunty Bailey, who was in the video (she used to date Morten, so that one’s understandable), and – more importantly – animators Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger, who still work together and even have a website devoted to their projects – past and future (Ayeroff mentions them in passing as “an animator in the back of my head”). Granted, the film is about a-ha, not the “Take On Me” music video, but to not even name the animators seems odd, since the animation work is the most iconic part of that video and is a huge reason for the band’s success (and is displayed prominently on Patterson and Reckinger’s website). Even more odd, we don’t find out that Morten used to be married, or that he has kids. Not interviewing them is one thing, but not even mentioning this fact when we hear about other personal details (like the crash that killed Magne’s father) is a strange omission.

The other problem is the material covered. After the fascinating early years, filled with interesting coincidences and a hungry band who had to go to London twice and rework their most iconic song before they made it (which covers roughly the first 45 minutes of the film – an hour if you include their follow-up album), it falls into the trap of following the chronology of each album recorded, briefly delving into what was or wasn’t wrong with each one, and getting less and less interesting the further away we get from their initial success. And for being such a great live band (as we’re told, with the numbers to back it up), we only get snippets of their live performances. Finally, the only really big success they had after “Take On Me,” 2009’s “Foot of the Mountain,” only came about because Pål was forced to combine one of his songs with one of Magne’s songs, where Magne is poking fun at him. Not quite as memorable as the story of “Take On Me.”

Finally, there’s the dramatic angle. Interesting documentaries must have interesting subjects, and unfortunately, a-ha’s trajectory is not unique in the world of rock or pop, in that they were once big and still have a big following, but have not been able to match their early success, are plagued by in-fighting, and don’t always want to be around each other. It’d be one thing if their fights were legendary, but they’re mostly petty squabbles around songwriting credits, who’s in charge in the studio (hint: it’s always Pål), and how some of the members (again, Pål) don’t respect the contributions of other members (like Magne). And none of them have especially charismatic or explosive personalities (or the documentary fails to draw them out), which tends to dull the proceedings. In conclusion, a-ha fans will be pleased, while the rest of us will look fondly at that first hour and with less enjoyment at the remaining 49 minutes.

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Two main points separate Flee from A-ha: The Movie. First, it’s a great movie. Second, I saw this one at the Egyptian.

Having seen the Egyptian at peak festival time, or even when their regularly scheduled films played, is to notice the drop in energy I witnessed last night, which I’ve also experienced when watching other movies around town. True, the theater did look fuller the nearer we got to showtime, and attendance has been capped at 50%, but still, the energy was missing, and I’m not sure it had to do with the number of attendees, or with the staff, who’d normally be larger (and busier) for a mini-film festival. Call it the COVID effect.

While the theater looks the same, some changes are in place. A new HVAC system sucks up any COVID particles that might be lingering in the air. No seats were roped off, but one of the slides on the screen instructed us to sit six feet apart from each other. Vaccines and masks are required (my vaccine card and ID were checked at the door), and the only time you can remove your mask in the building is if you’re eating or drinking.

The trailers began with an acknowledgment of the Coast Salish and other Indigenous people, whose land we were on. Then we got trailers for The Rescue and Becoming Cousteau before Programming Manager Stan Shields went up onstage, masked, and introduced the movie. He also introduced a short playing before the feature, which was made as part of the September Crash Documentary Workshop in which the young filmmakers (i.e. Crash Kids) made short films about the history of the Central District.

Stan Shields

This particular short took Rahwa Habte as its subject. The film includes footage of her talking about coming to Seattle from Eritrea, which at the time was in the midst of a Civil War with Ethiopia. When she moved here, she was one of 7 kids, with a brother on the way. It then shifts to asking a Central District resident about her, who was shocked that she hadn’t heard of her, saying she should have as an educator, and then ends with footage of a vigil to Rahwa, who died last year.

Flee shares a strange connection with A-ha: The Movie, in that the song “Take on Me” is used early in the film, and a cruise liner from Norway plays a prominent role in one of the plot developments.

The film starts with the director asking his friend, Amin, what his definition of home is. Amin says it’s a place “you know you can stay, and you don’t have to move on.”

We then hear of Amin’s life in Kabul under the Soviet-backed government, his father’s “disappearance” because he was considered a threat to the regime, the Mujahideen and the involuntary recruitment of teenage boys by the government to fight them, and his harrowing journey as a refugee fleeing Afghanistan as the Taliban took over Kabul in 1991, and then fleeing from Russia after arriving there soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Russia was the only country that would issue visas to the fleeing Afghans). Except for news footage and archival video, the entire film is animated in a somewhat jerky style, while the music does an excellent job reflecting the underlying tension on the screen. And did I mention that Amin grew up gay in a country that doesn’t even have a word for homosexual? That sets up a later confrontation with his family, of which the resolution is one of the high points of the film.

In between Amin telling his story (a story he has told no one, and for which certain names were changed to protect people’s identities), we see him debating whether to buy a house with his boyfriend Kasper or go back to America to continue research he began as an undergrad at Princeton.

Amin is worth knowing and his tale is worth telling, so much so that even if there were technical deficiencies in its telling (there aren’t), this would be a must-watch film. No wonder it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at this year’s Sundance.

Note: Flee is one of two films (The Sanctity of Space is the other) that isn’t available to stream, while A-ha: The Movie is available for streaming for Washington State residents only, from October 4-7. More info can be found on SIFF’s website.