The Dissidents


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Dissidents
"As a comedy it delivers laughs, as a piece of northerly 'ostalgia' it manages quite ably to convey culture clashes and the various disappointments of leaving one's homeland."

The police come to visit Ralf, respectable Mr Taam, the integrated Estonian immigrant. They come to his small Swedish suburban house, park their Volvo in front of his, and say that he's been asked to confirm an identity - that of someone claiming to be a Ralf Taam.

Framed by this journey, by reminiscence, Dissidents leaps back to a very particular flavour of 1980s, to a very particular struggle - not content to be labouring under Soviet rule in "occupied Estonia" Ralf and his pals are trying to wheel and deal for Western goods. Economic deprivation, an endless war in Afghanistan, the past is a foreign country - here multiply so.

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Polyglot (English, Swedish, Estonian), polysubtitled (I spotted a couple of homophonous errors but even I, a native, don't always manage they're/their/there when I'm not paying attention), politically aspirational (at least at the welcoming reception), the Dissidents aren't called that until further into their story. Before that they are punks, not yet hair metal - selling Western goods like trainers and gel in exchange for gold. Despite border gaurds, visits from the KGB, even forays into pornography, this is a far more comic tale of Scandi penury than Easy Money - though some of the jokes are sufficiently bleak that there were audible gasps from audiences at 2018's Glasgow Film Festival. Despite its settings there was probably more snow around the cinema than on the screen, and those due to make it over for Q&A were turned back at Amsterdam. Similarly frustrated in their international attempts are the Dissidents themselves - Ralf, Mario, and Meat-head.

As a comedy it delivers laughs, as a piece of northerly 'ostalgia' it manages quite ably to convey culture clashes and the various disappointments of leaving one's homeland. There are moments that are perhaps a bit worthy, some that are perhaps a bit didactic, and there's at least one revelation that needs careful attention to how someone is credited to pay off. It contributes to a particular circularity, but it's one that could have been better supported in the film. That's not to say that the film doesn't work - I laughed, frequently. While there were some elements of the humour that seemed to take the easiest route (in particular an apparently universal shorthand between a certain style of guitar and a slightly menacing backwoodsiana) there are others that pay off in unexpected ways.

The period detail seems pretty accurate - one opportunity has them weeding the grounds of a Volvo factory, with what appears to be a wing of a Volvo museum parked behind them, but it's the arrival of a particular slice of American muscle car (and Baltimora's "Tarzan Boy") that signals a real change of gear.

The core cast, Mart Pius (Ralf), Karl-Andrews Kalmet (Mario), and Veiko Porkanen (Meat-Head, known to his Lada-owning parents as Einar) are all charming, conveying well the highs and lows of their various accomodations. There's good sense of character created by the script - writer Martin Algus and director Jaak Kilmi have managed to give their cast ground for a sense of self and place across relatively significant time and distance. After an unexpected downgrade Mario remarks "everyone's a boat hero here" - and that contrast between expectation and delivery, the distance between home and away, is where the Dissidents really shines. Or, as with the chrome effect in its logo, gives the appearance of shining through careful technique.

Reviewed on: 05 Mar 2018
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An upbeat comedy about three boys that escape from Soviet Estonia to Sweden via Finland in the Eighties to fulfill their dreams in the free world.

Director: Jaak Kilmi

Writer: Martin Algus

Starring: Märt Pius, Karl-Andreas Kalmet, Veiko Porkanen

Year: 2017

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Estonia, Finland, Latvia


Glasgow 2018

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