Making a documentary about a non-visual medium is no easy task and for all its political complexity, this is a fantastic demonstration of how to make visual the fear the craziness and triumph experienced by just one part of Europe between the late 70s and 80s. This is no spoon-fed narrative and requires a great deal of attention, but the rewards for expecting intelligence from its audience are great.
Before the age of the Internet, the flow of information and the representation of truth lay in a very few hands. The Cold War between Communism and Democracy was more a war of ideas than of bombs and bullets, but those ideas could be as strong as iron bars, as tight as a nylon noose. Win the “hearts and minds” of a people and they can be controlled. This was the desire of Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu, but his own propaganda machine was threatened by a voice outside his borders ; that voice was Radio Free Europe.
Cold Waves is a story of a radio station that helped much of Eastern Europe to begin to break free of its totalitarian oppression. Told from the Romanian perspective, writer/director Alexandru Solomon uncovers the battle of the airwaves in his own country and relates a rich, stylised tale of cat-and-mouse games between all those involved – the listeners, the Radio Free staff and the government agents intent on stopping the march of Democracy.
The “Ether Group”, a special Romanian government unit, was set up to listen to RFE and try to track its supporters and those using it to spread messages to the outside world. It even chased down those who requested certain pop tracks on a well-known music station, as crazy and as pointless as it seemed – even to the agents who were ordered to do it.
And yet the station, originally funded by the CIA, remained intact, giving hope to those inside and outside of Romania’s borders. It was a vital line of communication to the world during a terrible earthquake when the censored radio press was actually unable to broadcast and the country’s illustrious leader was somewhere else,
Continually undermined and politically embarrassed by the voice he could not silence, Ceausescu’s frustration led to his hiring of the infamous contract killer Carlos the Jackal. The RFE’s headquarters in Munich were bombed, the radio station’s editors attacked, and three directors died after being X-Rayed.
In 1989 Ceausescu’s reign ended at the hands of his own people and his execution at the hand of a firing squad along with his wife occurred soon after. RFE is alive and well and still broadcasting, though its scale is far smaller than during its Cold War days. But it now has a new target , and that target is fundamentalism , not Marxism. Radio Free Euope is today part of the battle to “win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqis and Afgans, and yet again, it may be words, not weapons that win a war of ideologies.