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'Disco and Atomic War': Doing Ideological Battle

No matter the earnestness of the cold warriors, Disco and the Atomic War makes clear that the most effective weapon is the West's completely corny "soft power."

Disco and Atomic War

Director: Jaak Kilmi, Kiur Aarma
Cast: Gerda Viira, Oskar Vuks, Toomas Pool, Jaan-Joosep Puusaag
Rated: NR
Studio: SnagFilms
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-07-30 (SnagFilms)

As a child, Jaak Kilmi learned to take photos. As photos of him with a camera illustrate, he was inspired to document the important events of his life, namely, as he narrates, "commercials and films shown on Finnish TV." Growing up during the '80s in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, Jaak was drawn to the worlds of Snap, Crackle, and Pop (the animated Rice Krispies pitchmen) and the Ewings.

As he recounts in Disco and Atomic War (Disko ja tuumasõda), Kilmi's experiences were not unique. For one thing, relatives from the countryside would trundle into the city for their own doses of TV. Though they weren't yet aware they were feeling deprived in their "Soviet residential area," watching Dallas inspired Jaak and his family to want more. Each episode, he recalls, seemed a "captivating spiritual séance where my mother is the medium. She translates everything about the strange characters, their love affairs and relationships." By means of this amazing box, he and his relatives have access to a "real world" beyond the Iron Curtain, where "people [are] drinking whiskey on the rocks and working in skyscrapers."

The film, available at SnagFilms beginning 30 July and screening as part of the Rooftop Films series in Brooklyn on 31 July, tells Kilmi's story via wry narration, colorful reenactments, and cleverly juxtaposed archival images. No matter the earnestness of the cold warriors, Disco and the Atomic War makes clear that the most effective weapon is the West's completely corny "soft power."

Dimly aware of the trouble coming, the Soviets struggle mightily to keep back the crass pop tide. As Sakari Kiuru, former head of Finnish TV remembers, the official pushback was occasioned by the Czech uprising of 1968: where Soviet television ran images of citizens greeting Russian soldiers with open arms, Finnish TV instead showed alarming shots of tanks in the streets and fights between citizens and men in military uniforms. "The next day," the film intones, "the first anti-Soviet demonstration rages in Helsinki." Kiuru says, "It upset [Soviet authorities] very much, but they couldn’t do anything. The show had gone on the air and we didn’t regret it either."

The idea that news and other images might be transmitted widely took hold. A TV transmitter was built near Helsinki and the pop cultural tide, though at times reduced to a trickle, became essentially unstoppable. The shift in thinking and wanting was expressly generational. Historian Esko Salminen recalls efforts to undermine the increasingly available American programming -- from Kojak to Knight Rider to Star Wars -- would "dehumanize the Estonian youth," but it soon became clear that said "youth" were eager for exactly that effect.

As intrepid viewers found ways around official efforts to jam signals (with jury-rigged antennas, for instance), the Soviets tried counterprogramming. A special task force convened in Moscow in 1972 set sociologists on the case, to decipher the "attitudes" of Finnish TV and figure ways to fight back against the most effective not-so-secret weapon, sex. Shots of women's legs and high heels suggest the Soviets had no chance against what they perceived as insidious CIA schemes. Lubitsch's Ninotchka is offered up as emblematic of the problem: when Garbo laughs in the face of stodgy Eastern ideology, the battle is surely lost.

This trajectory was enacted variously across Estonia. Though the Communists conjured their own imitations of the "Western dance disease" called disco (a comic montage shows variations performed in school gymnasiums and rooms resembling dank warehouses), some kind of genie was out of its bottle. While Jaak and his family kept up with J.R. and Sue Ellen, Jaan-Joosep Puusaag recalls his own youthful exploits, helping his father, who worked days at a technical university, assemble and sell TVs that could receive the Finnish signals. While Yuri Andropov sought brutish remedies using the KGB, valiant inventor Nikolai Haug concocted antennas using mercury, shutting down his operation whenever an ominous vehicle rolled by.

The writing is on the wall when Andropov dies in 1984. By 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev embarks "on a world tour like a pop star," he's only setting a stage for the monumental event of 24 June 1987, when Finnish TV broadcasts Emmanuelle. Neither Michael Knight nor Luke Skywalker could have imagined the fallout.


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