Rooftop Films talks with Estonian director Jaak Kilmi, whose documentary Disco and Atomic War connects David Hasselhoff, blue jeans, Dallas, disco dancing and the softcore porn classic Emmanuelle to the demise of the Soviet Union.
Rooftop Films: Disco and Atomic War deals with the unexpected forces that you argue were behind the collapse of the Soviet Union, something called “soft power.” What is soft power?
Jaak Kilmi, director of Disco and Atomic War: Basically, it’s entertainment. Soft power is entertainment. Entertainment is much more powerful than propaganda. It’s information about lifestyle. The life people of Western countries could afford themselves was the most powerful propaganda for us living on our side of the Iron Curtain. Edward Lucas (author of The New Cold War) defines soft power as the most efficient weapon during the Cold War.
Every Estonian — even most of the people in bigger cities in Soviet Union — were basically addicted to jeans, Western chewing gum. There was a black market of Western things. People in Soviet Union had their own jeans, they believed that [they needed] a state that could produce these wonderful jeans. And their own system, the Soviet system, couldn’t produce anything like that.
RF: In the film you detail the ingenious ways in which Estonians watched these soft-power American TV shows. But when you were growing up, at what point did you know that you were not just watching TV, but that you might be watching propaganda from the Soviet Union and American soft power via Finnish TV?
JK: Back then, it was like two different universes. There was one world that was inside of our living room. We had this TV set that brought us news from the Free World. It was entertaining, sexy, colorful — we had black and white TV, but it was colorful — and then there was a gray and boring world that surrounded us, around our living room. This official truth, this Soviet truth, this Soviet propaganda, was something that was ridiculous, even for children. Nobody believed this official truth. But everybody believed in TV commercials that were shown on Finnish TV. Everyone believed that life in the States [was] as beautiful as we [saw] in Dallas. It was impossible for Soviet propaganda to convince us that things are not as beautiful as we [saw] in Dallas.
RF: In the film, you give another example of soft power: the broadcast of Emmanuelle — softcore pornography — on Finnish TV. Was this really a political turning point?
JK: After the screening of Emmanuelle, nothing was like it was before. It definitely was a big national event. There was a big sexual frustration in the Soviet Union, because all of this entertaining material was forbidden. In Soviet films, you never could see women wearing bikinis, so this softcore erotic film really gave power to people to survive this system. (Also, as the film notes, the Estonian birthrate conspicuously increased sharply nine months after the broadcast.)
When you see a naked woman — or at least, a half-naked woman — on TV, you can understand that real life hasn’t disappeared from the Earth. You can trust a half-naked woman. When you could see half-naked women on a TV screen, it gave you the strength to imagine whatever.
RF: It opened Estonian’s minds to political possibilities?
JK: Oh, yeah. The world changed that evening. It’s not written in history books. Little things [have] changed the world. [In Disco and Atomic War,] it’s not official history we are dealing [with], it’s a personal history. Personal histories [are] more important [to] me.
RF: How did you collect the personal stories that would become the basis for Disco and Atomic War?
JK: We announced, four or five years ago, a campaign of collecting memories from people our age, of people that were children during the 70s and 80s. We asked what they remembered from these times, what they remember from Finnish TV. We got 40 or 50 letters and they were full of interesting details and stories.
We started to think, “How can we use these funny details?” We were using documentary material, but the characters are fictional. We constructed these four different characters — the fifth character is me, it’s my story.
RF: What did you make up?
JK: There was a story of a boy who tells that he was talking through an electronic watch to Western cars.
RF: Like on Knight Rider.
JK: Yeah. It was made up by us, because we needed that story element. You have to make up some narrative elements. But after the premiere, many guys told us that they were really talking to their electronic watches!
RF: That raises more questions, because you have experts — who are really those people — and documentary footage that fits into the narrative seamlessly.
JK: Every time when I present this film in front of a big audience, at festivals, I say, “Don’t take everything too seriously!” It was playing with the style of documentary filmmaking. We wanted to have as few talking heads as possible, but we wanted to have some talking heads just to give some [credibility]. These experts confirm everything [we believe]. It isn’t written in any documents that Estonia was a laboratory for [the] KGB, but still there are conspiracy theories that “confirm” that. It’s a conspiracy theory we are presenting. I’m quite sure that serious scientists or historians don’t take our film too seriously. Probably, they think it’s kind of ridiculous. We didn’t talk to them.
RF: The film relies heavily on archival video. Did any of it surprise you?
JK: I was watching hundreds of hours of material from Estonian TV. I was looking for absurd things, not historic truth. I was so lucky when I found something absurd. My producer, Kiur, [found] from the cellar of Tartu University, material from old Soviet educational films — you know, physics, chemistry, whatever, electromagnetics. When we went to illustrate some conspiracy theories with the KGB, we’d put this old footage from these educational films from the 60s. I’m really thankful to these unknown Soviet film directors. I can’t imagine what would’ve been the other option.
RF: After all that’s happened, you’re thankful to the Soviet Union? Is that what you’re saying?
JK: Partly, yeah! This [life] I would’ve been living would’ve been much more boring. This everyday absurdity I experienced in our childhood in Soviet Union was a powerful experience. And probably it has formed my sense of humor.
RF: On a serious note, do you know of soft powers being used in other political battles today?
JK: I know a Russian Ukrainian who specializes in soft power that is used in Islamic countries to help Westernize people in the Middle East. But they [have] their own media that they believe more than they believe the Western illusion that is created by Western soft power… Probably nobody in North Korea has access to South Korean TV, but it could be the most influential, if they could see South Korean TV in North Korea.
RF: What is Estonian TV like today?
JK: It’s like all the other TV channels in Europe: Commercial TV channels that are showing the same shit of every other TV channel in the world. In a way, our film is about the age of innocence, when TV was the only source of information, the only source of entertainment. The television doesn’t play that big a role in people’s lives anymore than in the 70s or 80s, when there was no Internet.
RF: Have you seen any American TV recently in Estonia that you suspect might be propaganda?
JK: I don’t watch TV at all. There’s no need to live in the illusion that TV creates.
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Photo from Disco and Atomic War courtesy of Icarus Films