Back during the Cold War, what possibly could subvert Communist doctrine in the minds of Russian youth? American TV, naturally. Dallas, Knight Rider, and French Emmanuelle were obvious works of the CIA according to Communist hardliners—old men who dropped dead every couple years. The “Soft Power” struggle during the Cold War is illustrated in this Estonian/Finnish documentary.
The city of Tallinn in Estonia is on the Gulf of Finland. Helsinki is a short way across the gulf and transmitted Western TV signals once upon a time. Ingenious ways were invented to get these precious signals. The documentary is composed of three elements: recreations, interviews, and stock footage mostly regarding changing Soviet leaders. The recreations are the strongest parts; they’re semi-autobiographical about director Jaak Kilmi and focus on easily relatable human stories, especially those involving children.
For example, a cousin visits and sees Dallas (J.R. Ewing and company) for the first time. The cousin returns home and desperately wants to know what happens next. Young Kilmi obliges and writes letters. These letters are like wildfire where the cousin lives; her whole town hangs on plot twists involving J.R., Sue Ellen, and Cliff Barnes. In a different segment, Kilmi helps his Mom print forbidden program guides for the Western station. Kilmi gets a good underground business selling them at school. As a prank one week, he inserts a fake listing for a sex movie at 2am. Boys all over Tallinn sneak a look for promised sex that never airs. Even bomb drills became okay because kids could sound like K.I.T.T. on Knight Rider in their gas masks.
Interviews, that sometimes are dull talking heads, are strongest when discussing particulars of the black market underground for receiver hardware. Kilmi’s father was an engineer who had a booming secret business making illegal converters that allowed Russian TVs to watch lusted after signals. A different engineer made antennas and invented a mercury antenna that was actually a transformed thermometer. As technology evolved, microchips were smuggled across the border in body crevices. Missing are stories of people who might have been arrested or perhaps they bribed officials to stay in business. Did the police not want their Western TV cut off either? The Soviets were not warm fuzzy dictators.
Stock footage of the changing Soviet political landscape is the weakest component. The sequences have the dusty dry feeling of The History Channel at 1am. I suppose Kilmi did best with what was at hand, but imaginative direction might have breathed life into these parts. Plus storytelling patterns get repetitive and monotonous toward the end. To some degree, this history written down is more interesting than the film. Yet as it stands, this an interesting documentary; parts of are quite entertaining.