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Film Notes: Woodstock Film Series Screens Estonian Documentary

A scene from the Estonian movie "Disco and the Atomic War" -- it will be shown at the Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock on Saturday, Dec. 29, at 3 p.m. (Courtesy photograph)

A scene from the Estonian movie "Disco and the Atomic War" -- it will be shown at the Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock on Saturday, Dec. 29, at 3 p.m. (Courtesy photograph)

There’s a lull between Christmas and New Year’s in terms of releases of new films and local screenings but there are a few noteworthy events in the next week, starting with a screening at 3 p.m. tomorrow at the Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock of Disco and the Atomic War, a 2009 film from Estonia that asks the provocative and not entirely silly question: Did J.R. Ewing help to bring about the end of the Cold War?

Ewing, you may recall, was the fictional scion of South Fork Ranch on the long-running CBS nighttime soap opera Dallas. Played by the late Larry Hagman, Ewing was a charming ne’er-do-well, a bad boy with bad habits and a dazzling grin who was also an international TV phenomenon in the 1980s.

In this droll 80-minute documentary, which is part recreation, part newsreel footage, director Jaak Kilmi looks at the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the mid-to-late 1980s and the ensuing independence of Estonia, which had been one of the U.S.S.R.’s Baltic satellite states, through the lens of Estonian TV viewing habits. Once Estonians realized that they could filch TV signals from Finland by rigging antennas on the roofs of their homes and apartment buildings, the race was on to see how quickly they could outwit Soviet attempts to shut them down.

Kilmi argues, only semi-facetiously, that when Estonians acquired the habit of watching such 1980s American TV fare as Dallas and Knight Rider, the show starring David Hasselhoff and a souped-up, sentient Trans Am named KITT that rivaled James Bond’s Aston Martin, they began to realize just what they were being denied by the Soviet puppets ruling their country.

What the Soviets told Estonians was nothing more than empty capitalist propaganda and a tool of Western spy masters — the lure of Western material goods and such fripperies as, you know, food — turned out to be what Estonians wanted. A bourgeois lifestyle? Bring it on!

Kilmi unearthed some hilariously bad Soviet-era television featuring apparatchiks at party conferences, factories and parades, which suggests that the Soviet Union imploded not only because of financial or political reasons, but from sheer tedium. Watching former Soviet leaders Brezhnev and Andropov preside over the usual displays of Soviet military power on parade reminds one of the old Dorothy Parker quip when she was informed of the death of Calvin Coolidge: “Really? How can they tell?”

But were Larry Hagman and David Hasselhoff really CIA spies? Was American television a clever ploy to achieve world domination, or merely a projection of American “soft power?” Were the disco lessons on Finnish TV (also hilariously awful) another CIA tool?

Or was the collapse of the U.S.S.R due less to cunning Western plotting and more to the fact that the sclerotic Soviet Union was too busy coming up with outlandish plans to counteract American influence, such as running a net under the entire Gulf of Finland that would block all TV signals to Estonia, to realize that the days of empire were numbered?

Kilmi’s deadpan humor serves this satiric documentary well, but don’t let the gently mocking tone fool you: there’s ample food for thought here on what makes political power endure, and decline.

For tickets and information call 802-457-2355, or go to http://www.billingsfarm.org/assets/pdf/wvfs-flyer-2012-2013.pdf.

∎ Animation alert! The Hopkins Center continues its year-long “Best in Show,” a celebration of some of the world’s great film festivals with a weekend given over to the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Even though it’s still a few weeks off, you might want to consider buying tickets now.

Screening the weekend of Jan. 11-13 at Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center, “Best in Show” will feature animated films that are comic, gritty, thoughtful and illuminating. That Friday’s screening, which begins at 7 p.m., will include films Una Furtiva Lagrima, the journey of an unlucky fish from net to frying pan, and I am Tom Moody, which looks into the mind of a musician trying to sing.

Mary and Max, the tale of a 20-year-long epistolary friendship between a middle-aged New Yorker and an eight-year-old Australian girl will be screened that Saturday at 2 p.m.

At 6:30 p.m. on Saturday “Best in Show” continues with We Need the Eggs, a film dedicated to the fruitful connection between animation and comedy. The Marx Brothers, George Carlin and Louis C.K. are just a few of the big names that will pop up.

Finally, “The Best of OIAF” concludes Sunday, Jan. 13 with a screening of more great animated films at 2 p.m.

A cinematic “Passport” to all films that weekend is $30; single tickets $10, Dartmouth students $5. For more information call the Hopkins Center Box Office, 603-646-2422 or go to http://hop.dartmouth.edu/films/ottawa-international-animation-festival.

∎ The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction is the subject of the documentary Cartoon College, a film by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray that had a screening in November at the Main Street Museum of Art in White River Junction. If you missed it or want to see it again you can catch it at Merrill’s Roxy Cinema in Burlington on Wednesday, Jan. 9.

There is a caveat: in order for the theater to screen the film, the filmmakers have to guarantee an audience, which means that they have to sell 69 tickets by Jan. 2. The screening is made possible by a distributor called Tugg. If you have a film you want to show, Tugg will book a theater and manage the ticketing almost anywhere in the U.S. But you have to get the word out and bring in an audience. For information on how to sign up for a screening of Cartoon College at the Roxy in Burlington, go to http://www.facebook.com/CartoonCollegeMovie.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.