REVIEW: TV Thwarts the Commies in Disco and Atomic War
Only a month ago, to mark the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea, North Korea fired up its first Web site. Notoriously prohibitive of communication of almost every sort, as well as having one of the largest military forces in the world, North Korea defends its borders from outside influence with extreme prejudice, guarding as vigilantly against military invasion as it does against the infiltration of old Baywatch episodes and Kim Kardashian's scintillating Twitter feed.
The importance of securing the country's "soft" border is a lesson Kim Jong-Il learned, no doubt, from the example provided by the Soviets. Disco and Atomic War, Jaak Kilmi's semi-personal survey of the contributions that technology and cultural creep made to the liberation of his native land, Estonia, could easily be added to the Dear Leader's in-house video library. A (largely invented) anecdote about how pirated signals from nearby Finland caused word of the famous "Who Shot J.R?" Dallas storyline to spread from the capital of Tallinn throughout the rural south provides a loose framework for Kilmi's account of Estonia's determination to peek over, under, and around the Iron Curtain and get a look at the world of dirty capitalism on the other side.
Back in 1955, Helsinki built a transmission tower so tall and powerful that it had the potential to out-transmit the signal jammers the Soviets employed to keep unwanted radio and television broadcasts out. Kilmi consults with a couple of Cold War historians and broadcast technicians about whether that tower was part of an international plot to tempt Estonians with delectable episodes of Rawhide and snippets of beauty pageants, thereby using so-called "soft power" to sow the seeds of dissatisfaction and unrest. It's difficult to discern the veracity of this claim because it's difficult to get a firm grip on most of what Disco and Atomic War, constructed in a mish-mash collage style, has to offer: Kilmi seems to do everything he can to avoid establishing a rhythm that might help the viewer settle in and absorb the information that tickers out in constant, News on the March-style narration. A weakness for unidentified, non sequitur sound bites contributes to the din, and the deployment of dry humor is welcome but tough to distinguish from the rest of the film, which is just dry.
The result is a mediocre fusion of personal art project and documentary procedural -- re-enactments from Kilmi's Knight Rider-obsessed childhood are mixed in with talking heads and archival footage -- that never quite takes. Halfway into the film's 80 minutes and two decades into its story's recursive telling, we know not much more than that the Estonian people want to watch television to learn about the world, and that their government will do anything to stop that from happening. That said, we know it very well: Kilmi details the techy ingenuity -- his own father began secretly manufacturing adapters that would allow Estonian TVs to pick up Finnish programming -- and vigorous black market economy that sprang up to support not a revolutionary spirit but simple human curiosity.
Of course the two are not mutually exclusive, and over time the desire to keep up with television narratives and à la mode dance styles became more and more closely associated with the desire for freedom. In the only interview former Communist party leader Karl Vaino has given since his ousting in 1988, he draws a direct connection between Estonia's liberation and the availability of Finnish TV, saying it "made people think," and offered a direct contradiction to the portrait of corrupt, dehumanizing capitalism he and his party had worked so hard to paint. By the late 1970s and through the bleak 1980s, even on an ideological level the jig seemed pretty much up, and Soviet isolationism and propaganda were exposed as empty, almost habitual tropes propping up a bankrupt regime.
Historically, Kilmi's tale ends when Dallas did; by 1991, he points out, both the Soviet empire and the soap opera that connected Estonian peasants with the ultimate in American cheese were a thing of the past. "I just wanted to watch," Kilmi says, and the quaintness of that desire is well understood by anyone who ever begged her parents for an extra hour in the family room. Perhaps Estonia is still too young, pristine and exuberant a country to take a reading of the irony -- or at least the potential for it -- in using television and connectivity as a metaphor for freedom and the availability of all good things.
North Korea, the least communicative nation in the world, happens to be bordered by the most wired country on the planet. Even a baby step like a government Web site was treated by the press as a major milestone -- in part because it was, and in part because the rest of the world really wanted it to be. The future glimpsed by Jaak Kilmi in the Estonia of his childhood is here: We live in a communication age, and it is those who remain silent -- not those intent on finding out how u r -- who are considered hostile.
Though it provides a happy ending for his film, the arrival of that future also includes the current struggles of South Korea, where Internet addiction camps have been created to deal with a generation of suicidal zombie kids, the aping of American standards of beauty means eating disorders are on the rise (while a famine in the North killed millions only 15 years ago), and a Seoul infant starved to death this spring while her parents tended to the virtual baby they created online. It's not hard to find extremity in extremes, and yet perhaps, as more and more countries barrel away from one extreme toward another, it is a matter of self-preservation to remember, if only in between e-mails, to be shocked.