Having a Laugh at Soviet Absurdity

in 13rd Black Nights Film Festival

by Margit Tönson

The Finnish TV signal never extended to a region I used to grow up in during the 80s. “Talking Cars” and questions like “Who killed JR?” entered our consciousness only after Estonian independence was restored and newly established commercial TV stations started broadcasting the same TV shows Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma saw during their childhood spent in Tallinn – the city by the Gulf of Finland. It is so near to Helsinki, where the American-built broadcasting tower ensured that northern Estonia could also receive the signal from the free world. Or, at least that’s what the authors of Disco and Atomic War (Disko ja tuumasõda) – which had already won Best Documentary at the Warsaw International Film Festival, Best Feature Documentary at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival and got more awards from Black Nights Film Festival Baltic Feature Films Competition juries – want us to believe. So, it was not the armament race, but “soft power” discovered by Western intelligence which ended the Cold War. Using this so called “soft power”, Finnish TV played an important role in collapsing one of the superpowers of 20th century – the Soviet Union.

Disco and Atomic War is told through the eyes of generation born in the 70s, who ended up being “war heroes” without themselves even knowing about it, and without any scars or bullet-holes to prove it. Jaak Kilmi says that “our brains were bombed with sweet Western pop-culture, and the seeds of belief gotten stuck in our hyperconscious brains”. Western intelligence had found a hole in an ever-efficient Iron Curtain. So Kilmi and Aarma playfully state that, as the atomic bomb ended the last “hot war”, the soft-porn classic Emmanuelle ended the “cold war” (the fact is – nine months after the screening of Emmanuelle, the birth-rate increased remarkably and resulted in the first of the baby-booms Estonia had witnessed so far).

It has to be underlined, that the Soviet childhood during 80s was indeed full of absurd and parallel realities – you went to school and praised Lenin, but back home you celebrated Christmas. Children living near Tallinn just had one more fairytale reality in their life – due to Finnish television they could play around with ideas taken from Knight Rider or Dallas. Before Kilmi and Aarma started to write a script, they organized a campaign to collect memories related to Finnish TV shows and influences. Kilmi has confessed that these stories just cried out for being reconstructed, not just simply retold on screen. (It has to be emphasized that specially modified and equipped TV sets were needed to get the picture and the sound of Finnish TV. Otherwise “a black-and-white window” to freedom just flickered.)

Kilmi and Aarma are playing inside the genre and with the genre convincingly – classical “talking-heads” are there to convince the audience that it is an authentic documentary, even though facts are serving a dramaturgy here, not the other way round. Interviews with the heads of Finnish and Estonian TV and journalist Edward Lucas, author of “The New Cold War”, provide the historical perspective. Ordinary folks, whose words cannot be verified, mix pure fiction, urban legends and folklore. Archive materials – deliberately taken out of context and left insinuating things they originally did not insinuate – that is more of the mockumentary style.

Memory is a tricky thing, collective memory even more. There is a word for it – Ostalgie – looking back, not in anger, but exposing the grotesque, still funny and unique things about our past. Films like Sonnen Allee, Goodbye Lenin, etc., reinforce the absurdity of the socialist past. The directors of these films are usually quite young, idealizing their childhood. Ostalgia is more engaged with everyday life and simple things like how people dressed, what they liked to eat, what was on television and what kind of songs were popular in those times. No one is really crying back for the Soviet social or political order. The set designer of Disco and Atomic War, Liisi Eesmaa, has done a great job on creating this make-believe universe in “recreated” memory scenes. All those carpet slippers, hats, uniforms, blankets, joggers, etc., indulges to dig stuff out of one’s own hidden memories as well. Just as one of my colleagues pointed out, that Homo Soveticus did not always understand, what was real and what was made to appear real in his life, you cannot tell the difference in Disco and Atomic War. But it is so gripping from the start, you do not fight back. That definitely was not the case of Soviet make-believe. No fun there, trust me.

The Black Nights Film Festivals closing movie, Valeryi Todorovsky’s wonderful Hipsters (Stilyagi) also looks cheerfully back to the times in the Soviet Union’s history where Western influences managed to brighten up the everyday colorless uniformity of the Communist regime. An amusing, entertaining and flawlessly produced musical focusing on the 50s – when rock ‘n’ roll and jazz “bombed” youngsters brains – plays on the same tune as Disco and Atomic War. Hipsters stayed underground as punks and disco people – not anymore. This colossus of unification just could not bear the beat.

Edited by Steven Yates