SYNOPSIS: Disco and Atomic War tells the story of a strange kind of information war, where a totalitarian regime stands face to face with the heroes of popular culture – and loses. Western popular culture had an incomparable role in shaping Soviet children’s world-views – in ways that now seem slightly odd. Finnish TV was a window to a world of dreams that the authorities could not block. Though Finnish channels were banned, many households found some way to access the forbidden fruit.
Imagine if television cliff-hangers offered no resolution. Shots are fired – J.R., the infamous oil baron of America’s prime-time soap opera Dallas, lies in a pool of his own blood. But there is no concluding episode, no perpetrator to unmask. And we, as television viewers, are left suspended in speculation.
This is no world to live in. But through most of the 70s and 80s, such was the fate of TV fans in Soviet Estonia.
In his newest film, Disco and Atomic War, Estonian director Jaak Kilmi retells the esoteric history of Estonians who grappled for the freeflow of Western television that reached their TV antennas in the capital of Tallinn from across the sea in Finland. Through archives, reenactments, interviews and wildly creative docu-fiction narratives, Kilmi and producer Kiur Aarma follow the tenacious battle of the Estonian government and KGB officials to sever the ‘ideological waves’ of capitalist influence through the television set.
In the fog of more redundant stories about communist brainwashing and propaganda, Disco and Atomic War offers comical relief from a long and persistent historical narrative. During Kilmi’s childhood, Estonian youth were vulnerable to something called ‘soft power’ – America’s secret weapon to counteract Soviet ideals through the most addictive yet seemingly innocent means possible: popular culture. The fact the television programming could control the tastes, ideals and worldview of its consumers, made it the most severe weapon of Western control.
Take for example the Prague Spring riots of 1968. For the first time, made possible by Finnish TV, Soviet Estonia glimpsed the resistance to communist oppression by the youth culture of Czechoslovakia. But on Soviet channels, viewers were shown only one viewpoint – the obliging and passive Czech youth shaking hands with communist officials. Likewise, as American films portrayed Soviet commissionaires crossing sides to betray communist ideals, Soviet television showed CIA agents gunning down innocent comrades. With all its efforts to drown out the signal, the Soviet Union propagated the notion that Finland, with its gigantic America-backed TV tower, was fiercely determined to dehumanize Soviet youth through the debauchery of a ‘false world’ portrayed in their television programs.
Kilmi uses the TV show Dallas to introduce the conflict between Soviet Estonia and Helinski’s television signals. Each week the Kilmi family would gather in the living room and open the window to a new world where people played tennis, drank cocktails and were filthy rich! Kilmi’s addiction to Dallas led young Jaak to write letters to his cousin in the south of the country, updating her on episode after episode, that is, until the U.S.S.R. attempted to bombard Finnish cable with Soviet propaganda.
After J.R. is shot, episodes of Dallas no longer reach the viewers in Tallinn. Jaak’s cousin no longer receives letters. And nobody in Estonia knows who shot J.R.
With sharp, situatational humour that draws parallels to pop culture and communist reality, Disco and Atomic War uses the narratives of other young boys who, like Jaak, found themselves in a war to open the window to the West. One boy’s family starts an underground operation by building converters to unscramble the blocked Finnish TV signal. The KGB hires sociologists to study Estonian television-watchers. They retitle Western programs with communist rhetoric, confiscate television converters and destroy the forest of antennas that litter Tallinn’s rooftops. In retaliation, residents create underground groups like the People’s Militia, they build their own TV antennas (out if thermometers, no less) and smuggle Finnish microchips for Estonian TV sets to reconfigure the blocked television waves. Action and counteraction is played out in every incarnation as residents of Tallinn fight to preserve the crack through which a new, freer world can seep.
Disco and Atomic War carries its narrative against a backdrop of pop culture movements during two decades of resistance between the idealists and the iron fist. From Dallas to disco to the Cold War and atomic threat, to punk rock, Star Wars and Knight Rider, Kilmi’s poignancy lies in the intertwined and inseparable relationship between the powers of pop and politics. Following the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, the film delivers a lengthy history of infiltration and interference, where two opposing forces bounce propaganda back-and-forth across the sea. With incredible articulation and playful juxtaposition, Disco and Atomic War manages to account for the spreading of values and the fear that Hollywood, through the gateway of Estonia, could collapse the beliefsystem of the U.S.S.R. When the Union did fall and people rejoiced in the bliss of freedom, somewhere in the psychology of the Estonian people was the awareness they had finally pushed through the window to that very reality captured on television.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).