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"Cold Waves" – a must see for radio history fans

Anyone interested in how broadcast radio and international politics merged in the late 20th century should watch Alexandru Solomon’s masterpiece, Cold Waves, a documentary on Radio Free Europe’s role in Romanian society from the 1950s through the Cold War. LinkTV ran it over the weekend here in San Francisco.

“I grew up with it,” Solomon explains on the film’s page on BrightWide. “Every evening, in an underground atmosphere, my father listened to Radio Free Europe as anyone else did. It meant more than information. While Ceauşescu’s propaganda had less and less to do with reality, Free Europe’s Romanian section provided – apart from news – some hope. We had no idea it was a CIA operation. Simultaneously, in thousands of houses and blocks across the country, millions of people performed this daily ritual. And, the next day, the words of Free Europe were on everybody’s lips.”

That’s Nicolai Ceauşescu he’s talking about—Cold War Romania’s cunning dictator, who ran a police state while to some degree convincing the international community that he was a “reasonable” communist leader. The film is strongest in conveying how important RFE was to Romania’s educated class. Listened to every night, the station offered them the only grain of hope they had for getting through those terrible years. The documentary is full of fascinating, candid interviews with RFE’s passionate hosts who, from their station in Munich, Germany, poured their hearts out to their country.

Cold Waves is also a beautifully produced work—complete with dark “new wave” stage sets designed to set the mood of the times, and compelling footage from the era creatively mixed in with the film.

Less convincing, although equally compelling, are the various conspiracy theories upon which the documentary dwells. Did Ceauşescu’s agents manage to poison RFE staff with x-ray devices? Was notorious terrorist Illich Ramirez Sanchez, aka “Carlos the Jackal,” responsible for the bombing of RFE’s headquarters?

“The Radio was Ceauşescu’s most important enemy;” Cold Waves’ promotional materials say. “He even hired Carlos the Jackal to close it down. A strange alliance was thus forged, between a national-communist dictator and international terrorism.”

But in the film’s interview with Sanchez, Carlos denies having been involved with the bombing, although he praises Ceauşescu and his “police state.” And the documentary never really proves that somebody snuck into RFE HQ and pointed x-ray devices at these people (or something like that), even though a former security minister admits after Ceauşescu’s fall that he did everything he could to stop RFE, and would have killed its staff if possible.

Viewers who enjoy this sort of mystique and conspiracy driven approach will find that aspect of the film more compelling than did I. But overall, Cold Waves is a brilliant work, and a must-watch for radio lovers everywhere.

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