Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Finland, Estonia and the delightful DISCO & ATOMIC WAR: a shout-out to American TV

Who'd have thunk it? That we'd have something as Capitalistic as the American TV show Dallas to thank for helping bring down the Soviet block (the Estonian section of that block, at least). This is just one of the many surprising things Americans can learn if they watch the new documentary DISCO AND ATOMIC WAR, a movie that's amusing, sophisticated and so very "foreign."  Made by a Estonian filmmaker named Jaak Kilmi (who tells us at the film's beginning "My name is Jaak, and my life is wonderful because I can watch Finnish TV!"), this sneakily charming and thought-provoking film tells the story of how naughty airwaves from the "free" country of Finland sneaked across the border into Communist Estonia, bringing with them television shows (often from America) that were actually fun to watch. How subversive.

Mr. Kilmi, shown at left, tells his story well, in relatively concise fashion (the film lasts 80 minutes), and from various angles: family, friends, inventors, and in particular, the many ways that the Estonia puppet government, together with its Russian bosses, tried to stop this dreadful infiltration. Kilmi possesses, in addition to his film-making skills, a light touch and a wonderful sense of humor about his subject.  Together these should immediately pull American viewers into the story, which is a lot more fascinating than it might sound, as 1970s/80s Finland becomes a propaganda battleground between the USSR and the USA.

We can make fun of the television show Dallas all we want (I cer-tainly have), yet seeing it used as it is here gives the series new meaning, even a certain weight. Knight Rider, too, gets its day in the sun, as do atomic war, gas masks and, yes, disco -- the arrival of which, via TV, pulls the rug out from under poor Mother Russia yet again.

Illicit TV antennae, popping up all over Estonia (which borders Finland: You knew that) were unfortunately all too visible, so one clever fellow invents one that will work using the mercury from thermometers. When the country soon runs out of thermometers, and Russia wonders why, the citizenry claims a flu epidemic is going on. Meanwhile, everything from culture and mores to clothes and haircuts --all arriving via TV -- are changing Estonian youth. The Communist government tries to create its own competing versions of disco and fashion to entice the kids, but -- come on --  they want it made in America.  By the time the international soft-core movie hit Emmanuelle comes to Finnish TV, the game is practically over.

Utterly light-hearted, and sometimes light-headed, full of reconstructed scenes that still manage to look pretty real while entertaining us royally, Kilmi's movie is a treat -- as politically savvy as it is insightful about everything from fashion to fascism.

Disco and Atomic War, distributed by Icarus Films, opens this Friday, November 12, in New York City at the Cinema Village, with other cities/theaters to follow.  Click here for playdates in the U.S.A. and Canada over the next couple of months.

All pix are from the film itself, except that of Mr. Kilmi (courtesy of The filmmaker by the way, will be doing a special Q&A following the 7pm screening of his movie at the Cinema Village this Saturday, November 13.


Raimo said...

The Swedish government was responsible for the most iron ore the Nazis received. Kiruna-Gällivare ore fields in Northern Sweden were all important to Nazi Germany.

These massive deliveries of iron ore and military facilities from Sweden to Nazi Germany lengthened World War II. Casualties of the war have been estimated at 20 million killed in Europe. How many of them died due to Sweden's material support to Nazi Germany, is not known.

The Swedish drinking toast (skal) has a rather macabre background; it originally meant 'skull'. The word has come down from a custom practiced by the warlike and terrorist Vikings who used the dried-out skulls of their enemies as drinking mugs, with the evident advantage that the mug held a large quantity of mead and could be easily replaced.

James van Maanen, said...

Wow-- thanks, Raimo! I love a guy (or gal) who knows his history. Though, once a country has been conquered, it is pretty difficult NOT to do what the conqueror says (in this case, supplying iron ore and extending the war). There usually is some partisan/resistance activity (have you seen FLAME AND CITRON?), but this -- being small potatoes next to the might of the conqueror -- take much longer to get the job done.