It is easy to understand 1980s nostalgia. That was probably the last time we all had general confidence that the world was getting better, not worse. It was because of Reagan and Thatcher and Mulroney and Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa, but also because of Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cannon Films, and Miami Vice. The latter show has largely shaped three knuckleheaded Estonian defectors impressions of the West, so when unromantic Calvinist Sweden falls short of expectations, they will start to create some vice of their own in Jaak Kilmi’s The Dissidents (trailer here), which screens as part this year’s European Union Film Festival in Vancouver.
Ralf Tamm and his knockaround buddies have done pretty well purchasing black market consumer goods from tourists in the state hotel, but they will soon lose their network when Mario Viik and his older brother’s gang defect to Sweden via Finland. However, when the gang is busted, Viik offers to let Tamm and meatheaded Einar Kotkin take their prepaid spots. They had not really considering defecting, but it appears to be a once in a lifetime opportunity, requiring an immediate snap decision.
When Tamm’s trio finally stumbles through Finland into the land of Saab and Volvo, the local Estonian society hails them as heroes. Unfortunately, after they abuse the organization’s hospitality, the lads are forced to crash in a Swedish refugee center. (Of course, the Eighties-era institutional housing for asylum-seekers looks much nicer than what we see on the news today.) The more level-headed Tamm is inclined to get a job and start putting down roots, in hopes that his pregnant girlfriend will be able to join him. In contrast, the erratic Viik convinces the impressionable Kotkin to start pulling armed robberies in Finland, which will logically cause trouble for Tamm as well.
Somewhat counterintuitively, Dissidents is a narrative comedy that largely lacks the idiosyncratic charm of Disco and Atomic Warfare, the documentary Kilmi co-directed with Kiur Aarma, which also addresses the seductive lure of western pop culture during the final years of the Cold War. Fundamentally, Tamm and company are just not very appealing characters to begin with—and Kilmi continues to further stack the deck against them. Frankly, if they had acted in a less obnoxious, less entitled manner, they would have had a much easier time of things, so it is hard to take the film as any sort of coherent critique of Western Cold War values (plus, this is Sweden we are talking about, which barely qualified as the West in the 1980s—and nowadays, who knows?).
As Märt Pius looks distressingly like Matt “what did he know about Weinstein and when did he know it” Damon. Only Veiko Porkanen seems to relax and grow in on-screen charm as the dumb but well-meaning Kotkin. Still, there is clearly a lot of nostalgic fondness for 1980s music, fashion, and mass media, which is contagious.
There are some appealingly wistful moments in Dissidents, but Kilmi’s attempts to straddle heist movies, farce, and tragedy are often awkward. Still, the film has a very distinctive sense time and place. Three or four re-writes really could have sharpened Martin Algus’s script, but 80s nostalgia can never be all bad. A decidedly mixed bag, The Dissidents screens this Friday (11/24) as part of the EU Film Festival at the Cinematheque in Vancouver.