Home Video Hovel: Disco and Atomic War, by Patrick Felton
Icarus Films is putting out some of the most fascinating documentary content available for small screens currently. With Disco And Atomic War, the folks at Icarus have found yet another surprising and astonishing story from an alien world. This time, the documentary which premiered at Telluride in the fall of 2009 focuses on the nation of Estonia’s 40 year love affair with Finnish television. Directed by Estonian native Jaak Kilmi chronicles his own experience of watching Finnish television as a child and the impact that programs such as Dallas had on his community.
If this log line seems a little dry some short history may provide context:
In the 1950s Estonia was under control of the Soviet Union and all western radio and television were banned. Through a geographical anomaly, Estonians were suddenly able to receive signals from Finnish broadcast signals in the mid 50s, giving the Estonians a rare peephole through the Iron Curtain. As the Finnish signal began to give Estonians access to more and more Western Programming, the Soviet Union launched a four-decade defense against the likes of cooking shows, discos and Maverick.
While Disco and Atomic War may never be confused for one of the important documents of soviet history, it succeeds wildly as a small, efficient, compact, and ultimately singular way to tell a fascinating story.
The film’s progression alternates between Guy Maddin-esque first person video essay complete with campy reenactments quirky stock footage and serious historical chronology featuring more traditional documentary techniques. The resulting Gestalt is captivating and astonishing. The film often feels like a Rodney Ascher film with its straight-faced silliness matched with implied sincerity, wit, and ambiguous nostalgia.
It’s inevitable that the phrase “lighthearted” follows this film. Because the focus of the documentary is tied with watching 1960s-1980s television, much of the inevitable delight comes from the sillyness of the screen content. Culture jamming for comic effect can often feel forced and reductive.
However, in this case Kilmi has such a personal relationship to the content that the tone is neither cloying nostalgia nor ironic reattribution. Instead the film seems to inhabit another world – somewhere in between – somewhere fresh.
When the film does employ nostalgia, it feels fresh and surreal. Each time the melodic tones of the Finnish Broadcasting Network ding, the audience like the subjects of the film are transported into an enchanting and foreign from our own understanding of cultures. It is as if the viewers are seeing something that we were never supposed to see. We are voyeurs into a strange alternative pop cultural reality mediated by the minds of Finnish Broadcasting.. Its hard not to be fascinated by these alien images of a world that no longer exists.
However, what really sells this film is the story itself. The overarching theme slowly becomes how the stale formality of the communist party is slowly outmatched by the freshness and excitement of western media. Yet ultimately the film isn’t even interested in the big ideas that may have swept through. Its looking at the cast-offs, the strange pieces of maligned schlock that represented the sexiness of Western culture: Sex, Drugs, Disco, Hasselhoff. It is fascinating to think that J.R. Ewing and Knight Rider and the 80s soft-core pornography film Emmanuelle had just as much of a role in thawing the cold war as Star Wars and the Treaty of Gladknost.
Even if the viewer doesn’t accept the premise, the Soviet Union’s struggle to keep up with the Western world’s perceived puncturing of the soviet mentality via Finnish Airwaves makes for surprisingly entertaining cinema. One scene where the Soviet Union deals with the spread of disco across Estonia by planting communist operatives at dance clubs and teaching them party approved soviet disco songs is perverse and often baffling. Another sequence chornicles the soviet operatives comically botched attempts to block Finnish signals from reaching Estonians.
One of the film’s most brilliant moments is setting its climax to the Finnish television premiere of the legendary Swedish pornography Euro-Scholock classic Emmanuelle. The film asserts this premiere as a transformational moment for Estiona, equivalent with the moon landing. Narratives of homemade thermometer antennas, entire boy scout troupes sneaking a look at the film after their leader went to bed are reenacted with a strange sense of shared triumph for the Estonian people.
If a criticism was to be mounted on the film, it would be that director Jaak Kilmi does not have enough distance from the subject matter and thus overindulges in his own personal relationship with Finnish television. With a story as specific as this one, its hard to fault him for this, as Kilmi proves quite the raconteur. He’s telling the story he wants to tell, and lucky for us its riveting, hilarious, and surprisingly touching.