This interview was originally published during SnagFilms’ second annual SummerFest, a free online festival showcasing exclusive, limited-duration runs of popular new documentaries. “Disco and the Atomic War” opens in New York this Friday, November 12.
[Editor’s Note: SnagFilms is the parent company of indieWIRE.]
“Disco and Atomic War” reveals the unusual, provocative, and very funny story of how “Dallas” and “Knight Rider” led to the fall of the Iron Curtain. A story of coming of age under Communism, the documentary cleverly and cogently argues that the influence of “soft power” – pop culture via illegally intercepted Finnish TV broadcasts of Western media – weakened the tenuous foundation of the Soviet system in Estonia, hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union.
indieWIRE spoke to the film’s director, Jaak Kilmi, from Estonia about growing up in parallel universes, propaganda, and the manufacturing and rediscovering of childhood memories.
iW: Jaak, one of the joys of the film is that the viewer gets this privileged look into this clandestine world going on underneath the noses of the Soviets. It’s almost a sort of spy thriller. How much of that was really how you felt growing up – balancing daily life with this secret activity?
Jaak Kilmi: It was life under the Soviet system – we were struggling with every big problem. Publicly, my parents had to queue up to buy food, but were able to live secret lives in their private rooms. With the TV set in the living room, we were able to see Western pop culture -a different reality from what we were living. For me, it was like two different universes existed at the same time, and we got used to being in these parallel universes.
iW: The film gives the impression that this experience was fairly commonplace. Was this basically an open secret?
JK: It couldn’t remain a secret – of course everyone could see the antennae springing up on all the rooftops of our Soviet concrete buildings. All my friends were watching the same films and programs I watched – we were all fans of “Knight Rider” and talked about it. It wasn’t encouraged officially – I mean, at school we didn’t write essays about “Knight Rider!” But the Soviet Union wasn’t so closed – it wasn’t North Korea. It was a practical system. People were creative and industrious, so if they wanted to see Western TV programs, they would invent a way to do so. It’s strange in a way. There was an official truth, and there was daily life.
iW: I’m curious about the Soviet attempts to counter-program Estonia against the “soft power” of the Western media/pop culture. Did they ever try to use humor or some other more subtle, subversive means to fight against the Western media?
JK: In Northern Estonia, the Soviet authorities didn’t have a recipe on how to fight against the popularity of Finnish TV. Audiences didn’t want to watch hardcore Soviet propaganda. In the mid-1980s, however, the Estonian TV programmers came up with a clever idea: they asked Moscow for millions of rubles to make propaganda in Estonia to fight the Finnish programs’ popularity. They got millions from the government, but what they made was not propaganda at all! They simply made good, entertaining programs – no one in Estonia recognized them as propaganda, only Russia thought it was, so they got away with it. Of course, Russia provided their own propaganda programs, but Estonians knew to avoid them.
iW: Your film is often sardonically and even blackly humorous. Can you talk about how you found the right tone for telling this story?
JK: Yes, that tone is intentional. I have so many funny memories from these times. You know, my childhood in the Soviet Union was not terrible, it was very joyful. Life under the Soviet system was often funny, absurd really, especially for children. So in making the film, we felt we couldn’t escape the inherent humor, and we didn’t want to escape it, because everything was so absurd. The whole idea of this totalitarian system trying to fight against Western influence was so ridiculous. So I think this sardonic humor was present at the time, and it made sense to embrace it in the film.
iW: Speaking of children, can you tell us about your decision to incorporate the re-enacted scenes of childhood memories in the film? Are these re-enactments 100% true or have they been fictionalized to some extent?
JK: My producer/co-writer Kiur Aarma and I knew that we wanted to explore the memories of children who were around our age. We announced in newspapers and on TV our campaign to collect these memories of the Finnish TV broadcasts, and received about 40-50 emails. From these, we saw about 20 stories or motifs that we wanted to use in the film. We realized we could more effectively present them if we constructed characters. So they are constructed, but based on true recollections from these materials we received and our own stories.
For example, the part of the film where I write to my niece regularly about what happened in “Dallas” and “Who shot JR?” In real life, I promised I would write to her, but I never found the time. So I finally corrected that broken promise by writing to her in the film. She saw the premiere and was really happy – she told me, “At last, I get the letters you promised me!” So while I didn’t actually write them, I’m sure someone wrote these kinds of letters at the time.
Another funny story from the film – where Estonian boys would talk into their electronic wristwatches as if they were communicating with the car from “Knight Rider?” Kiur and I invented that. But after the premiere, a guy approached us and said he did that as a kid – so it was actually true!
iW: Did you have any trouble getting the participation of the TV executives interviewed in the film?
JK: Nobody had been interested in their work before – we were the first ones to ask them – so they were quite happy to talk. There was one guy who probably could have given us valuable information but he wasn’t sure what our intention was. Working under the Soviet system made you very paranoid – people were afraid of everything – and this paranoia is still in people’s minds today. But most of the TV people are really nice guys who have a sense of humor about what they did. You needed this in order to survive in the system.
iW: In screening the film, have you noted any generational differences in response from audiences?
JK: The film really resonates with people of any age who grew up in the Soviet Union, but we have shown the film to younger people, and it still works. It’s a very human story – basically, people want to see what they want to see, and if someone else tries to prohibit you, you find clever ways to see it anyway. The film is about a very human fight against any kind of totalitarianism.