As part of the former USSR, Estonia was geographically closer to (supposedly) democratic Finland than the communist powers in Moscow. When Finland began to broadcast television, they showed not only their own programs, but American ones as well. The north coastal Estonian city of Tallinn was only 80 km from Helsinki, and as much as the Soviets tried, they couldn’t stop the signal. Disco and Atomic War is director Jaak Kimli’s tribute to the innovation and drive of his people not to be kept behind the Iron Curtain, and the incredible power of popular culture. Using a combination of found footage, archival film, and staged scenes, Kimli has created a doc very much in the style of American experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin. Kimli relates how he wrote letters to his cousin recounting the television series Dallas, and how his cousin would go from house to house in her village, recreating the show to the delight of the people.
Interspersed is the history of the Soviet government’s attempt to block Finnish signals, and how the people of Tallinn became more inventive with every attempt, using any means at their disposal to watch and listen. This inventiveness is reflected in the film’s aesthetic; the combination of recreated scenes and archival footage mirror the somewhat static television transmissions, and how the programs were interpreted by the Estonians. The soundtrack gives the film a CSI-feel, and at one point Kimli presents an image of scientists studying lab rats: but the ambiguity makes the audience question whether it was the Estonians or the Soviet government who were the rats. When Soviet televisions were designed to only pick up Soviet signals, the Estonians built components to pick up the Finnish signals again; when the Soviets destroyed roof antennas, Estonians kept them inside or used mercury-based ones. The film uses Kimli’s personal story and his family’s almost daily risk of arrest in an irreverent manner to look at the larger story of the USSR’s hopeless attempt to control the hearts and minds of its citizens. Perhaps it was not the threat of nuclear war that caused the fall of the USSR, but the slow infiltration of so-called “soft power” through disco music and soap operas.