Reviews

Disco and Atomic War (Disko ja tuumasõda)

When Finnish TV broadcasts Emmanuelle in 1987, Jaak Kilmi's documentary recalls, "A bomb is dropped on Estonia, ending the Cold War."


Disco and Atomic War (Disko ja tuumasõda)

Director: Jaak Kilmi, Kiur Aarma
Cast: Gerda Viira, Oskar Vuks, Toomas Pool, Jaan-Joosep Puusaag
Rated: NR
Studio: Icarus Films
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-10-12 (New York Cinema Village)
Website
Trailer

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, opening 12 November at New York's Cinema Village, and then in other cities, tells Kilmi's story via wry narration and cleverly juxtaposed images. No matter the earnestness of the cold warriors, the 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." The turmoil is at once grim and exciting. 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, turned essentially unstoppable. Even as Soviet newspapers reported that "Finland wanted to dehumanize the Soviet people, especially the youth, with violence, cruelty, and sex." But the youth reading such stories knew another truth, that they felt informed and even somewhat freed by the images now available to them. That is, the shift in thought and desire was expressly generational. Historian Esko Salminen recalls that the increasing popularity of American programming -- from Kojak to Knight Rider to Star Wars -- led to the erection of a veritable "forest of antennas," as families sought access to an outside world.

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. "Michael Knight," he says, "taught me to use my watch to talk to cars."

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 setting a stage for the monumental event of 24 June 1987, when Finnish TV broadcasts Emmanuelle. "That night," the film recalls, "A bomb is dropped on Estonia, ending the Cold War." The effect is first visible in the antennas on every roof, the irrefutable sign that "prohibitions wouldn't work anymore." The fallout continues to this day.

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