Monday, November 08, 2010

Cold War, Soft Power: Disco and Atomic War

Soviet television was so stilted and corny, even the Finns made fun of it. The Estonians saw them do it too, because they secretly watched the programs broadcasted by their Scandinavian neighbors. They also enjoyed quite a few American exports on Finnish television, much to the alarm of the Communist Party. Though they might seem cheesy to us now, Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma explain how programs like Dallas and Knight Rider helped undermine the Soviet empire in their droll documentary Disco and Atomic War (trailer here), the best documentary of the year so far, which opens this Friday in New York.

For Estonians of the filmmakers’ generation, Finnish TV was significant beyond mere entertainment. Kilmi recalls posting letters every week to his cousin in the south relating the Ewing family’s latest scandals. Young Joosep’s early years revolved around the illegal Finnish convertors he helped his father sell, learning the fundamentals of the black market at an early age. Indeed, nearly every Estonian seems to have been involved in some small act of rebellion, for the sake of their Finnish TV.

Of course, the Soviets were not thrilled with the Finish broadcasters and they let them know it. In fact, Disco is an eye-opening reminder of the extent to which Finland fell within what the Soviets considered their sphere of influence. To their credit, Finnish TV programmers stuck to their guns, reporting the truth of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, leading to student protests on the streets of Helsinki. This also meant that Estonians knew the truth as well.

As important as the shocking images from Prague were, Kilmi and Aarma suggest the entertainment programming had a greater long term effect winning Estonian hearts and minds. It turns out Estonians dug Knight Rider just as much as the Germans. Disco dancing Finns and Star Wars the movie were also big hits (of course, this was before Lucas started mucking it up with new CGI).

However, the greatest triumph of what the film’s experts dub “soft power” might have been a fateful late night screening of Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle, the breakout soft-core porn film starring Sylvia Krystel that inspired dozens of sequels (which I’m sure everyone reading this is completely unfamiliar with). Officially, nobody was watching in Estonia either, but let’s just say there were a lot of tired people at work the next day.

Life under the repressive Communist system was certainly serious business, but Kilmi and Aarma have crafted some of the wittiest and breeziest cultural history viewers are likely to see on film for quite some time. They have a shrewd eye for visuals that playful tweak the dour Communists and convincingly evoke the spirit of the times with dramatic recreations of episodes from their childhoods. Ardo Ran Varres’ groovy soundtrack, heavily employing vibes and drum breaks, also helps maintain a lighthearted spirit.

As entertaining as Disco is, on a per-frame basis, it has to be the most informative documentary of the year. In its way, it is a testament to the innovative spirit of the Estonian people, who consistently found new ways to subvert Soviet censorship. It also demonstrates there is no such thing as a closed system for information, even in an oppressive state like the USSR. Enthusiastically recommended, Disco opens in New York this Friday (11/12) at the Cinema Village.