A Funny Probe Into the Absurd World of Soviet TV Commercials

Czech premiere with English subtitles on Monday, June 27

The inhabitants of the countries of former Eastern bloc can still remember the absurdity of television commercials in the socialist era, when such products as salad or things permanently out of stock were advertised. In former Czechoslovakia, these commercials were made mainly by the companies called Merkur and Rapid, but just one company was enough for the whole Soviet Union: Eesti Reklaamfilm. In their lightly and swiftly shot film, The Gold Spinners, two Estonian filmmakers, Kiur Aarma and Hardi Volmer, decided to look under the hood of this company and find out how they prepared their commercials, one of which was even used in the comedy film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

The Gold Spinners, supported by Institute of Documentary Film, will have its Czech premiere with English subtitles on Monday, June 27 from 8:45 p.m. in Světozor Cinema, Prague. The two authors spoke about their film.

What was your main motivation to make a film about Eesti Reklaamfilm?

Kiur Aarma: There were many reasons: first, we discovered the film material with clips produced by ERF. These were actually thought to be lost, but a great part of the material was just in the unlabeled boxes in the cellar of the film archive. And that was really impressive and inspiring — it's a visual story about strange phenomena with a touch of absurd.... What else could a filmmaker wish for?

How many commercials have you eventually seen and which ones do you find most bizarre?

Hardi Volmer: Only 5 percent of the total production of ERF (about 5,000 to 6,000 commercial films) were preserved. But 5 percent still mean a lot -— almost 200 to 300 films. And among them there are many jewels. My personal favorites are the ads for cheese and butter, made on color films in the 1960s.

Was the personality of Peedu Ojamaa, the founder and director of Eesti Reklaamfilm the main reason, why this studio was the only company producing commercials in the Soviet Union?

Hardi Volmer: Concerning negotiations and closing deals Peedu was a machine-like man. But the timing of the birth of ERF was lucky, too: there was a brief window of opportunity, the moment in time when Soviet propaganda needed something like that to show a bit milder face towards the West. Yet at the same time — that was 1968 — the Soviets oppressed the Prague Spring.

In your film, the shooting of the commercials in a “documentary” style is also mentioned. Were these pseudo-documentary ads more popular than the “fictional” ones? Or what was the reason for making them in such a way?

Kiur Aarma: The main reason for the “documentary” style was purely financial — in the planned economy every product or service had it's own fixed price, set somewhere at some ministry. As the commercial films were something completely new as a notion, they didn't have that fixed price for them. So the producers from the ERF described them as “documentary films” and got paid for every 2-minute clip as they would have been paid for a 60-minute documentary film.

What is your explanation of how Eesti Reklaamfilm produced so many ads in the times of planned economy and universal lack of everything? In the beginning of your film, one of the characters says that this is a big mystery.

Hardi Volmer: That is the absurdity of the planned economy. There was a fixed number for almost everything — for production, for consumption and for advertising. All the rest is adjusting the reality to the planned numbers, and that was pretty hard sometimes. So if there was a fixed plan that 1 percent of the budget of every Soviet company was to be spent on advertising, then the money had to be spent. Whether the clips were of high or low quality, or whether they worked at all, no one cared, really.

In the final part of your movie you mentioned that an ad for an ice cream, very popular in Estonia, even made it to the Borat movie. How did it get there?

Kiur Aarma: That was thanks to the director of this ad for ice cream, who personally took the film out of the garbage bin back in 1994. In the end, he not only saved it, but also made it famous in such a way.

Have you had some interesting responses to your film from the audiences of the film festivals in Sydney or Melbourne for example, who are not so familiar with the absurdity of the economy under the communist regime?

Hardi Volmer: So far, the interest and reactions from the audience have been great everywhere, be it Australia, America or Europe.

Mr. Volmer, you work at the scenography department of the Estonian Art Academy but you also sing in the Estonian punk rock band Singer Vinger. In which ways are you still influenced by the “punk philosophy“ these days? Is it somehow useful for your work?

Hardi Volmer: The main idea of punk, anarchy, was a pretty decent term in Soviet Union. It is not so anymore, especially if we have a look at the situation in the world today. … Our band, Singer Vinger, has been on stage for 35 years now and for a long time already I wouldn't label our style as punk. One goal of the art is still to irritate society — that attitude is still important for me. We made punk in the very beginning of our musical career, and a brief piece of that is heard in this film, too.

Your film was supported by the Institute of Documentary Film through East Silver Market, what exactly did it mean for your film?

Kiur Aarma: We were in the system of your activities from the very beginning — developing and pitching the story to TV channels, etc., until the very end, the East Silver Market. The people there have always been really friendly and supportive, of course this all and the connections made in Jihlava [at the documentary festival] and Prague have helped us really much.

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