Wednesday, October 22, 2014

UNAFF ’14: The Gold Spinners

He was Soviet Estonia’s Don Draper, the only Mad Man operating in a barking mad system. Thanks to a unique set of circumstances, his Esti Reklaamfilm (ERF) Studio prospered nicely as the only production house for television commercials in the USSR. Peedu Ojamaa looks back on his strange but groovy career in Hardi Volmer & Kiur Aarma’s The Gold Spinners (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2014 UN Association Film Festival in the Stanford area.

Ojamaa started at as a cub reporter, transitioning into newsreel production, specializing in uncommonly watchable reports, at least by the admittedly dismal standards of the Soviet media. Of course, Estonians were familiar with the TV commercial as concept, because they were furtively watching Finnish broadcasts (by all means, see Aarma’s even more rollicking Disco and Atomic War for the full glorious story).

Why oh why, would a Socialist Workers’ Paradise need something as crassly capitalistic as the commercial spot? To help perpetuate certain illusions, such as the non-existent demand for some state-mandated products. Conversely, even though scarcities like butter and sugar would immediately sell-out anyway, ERF’s commercials created a false image of plenty.

Arguably, Ojamaa became the first crony capitalist when Soviet planners, in their infinite wisdom, declared one percent of all state enterprises’ annual budgets had to be spent on advertising. As a result, ERF probably produced spots for products that never really existed—and the likely examples are pretty incredible to behold. Frankly, many of ERF’s commercials are considerably more entertaining than Super Bowl ads, like animator Priit Pärn’s energy conservation PSA. While prudish Party censors maintained a tight rein on programming, ERF was also apparently “free” to pursue the old adage “sex sells,” so parents be warned.

Granted, there is a good deal of nostalgia for the work ERF produced, but no illusions regarding the corruption and inefficiency of the Soviet Socialist system. One might say, Volmer and Aarma treat the Communist era with the irony it deserves. Regardless, the impish humor of both the film and the commercials it documents are quite winning.

Indeed, Spinners has the same punchy editing, subversive humor, upbeat soundtrack, and wickedly insightful cultural-political history that made Disco such a blast. Aarma and his collaborators on both films prove documentaries can be wildly entertaining and enormously informative at the same time. Very highly recommended, The Gold Spinners screens this Sunday (10/26) as part of session 29 of this year’s UNAFF.