A nation comes alive with the sound of music

The Singing Revolution

on December 06, 2007 by John P. McCarthy

Anyone of Estonian ancestry wanting to learn more about his or her heritage should watch The Singing Revolution. Anyone seeking a history primer on the tiny Baltic nation founded in 1918, and anyone researching the breakup of the Soviet Union, can also benefit. The documentary is thoroughly patriotic in the sense that no effort has been made to hide the goal of engendering national pride. Information is presented exclusively from the Estonian perspective through narration intoned by Linda Hunt and interviews with dozens of politicians, activists, resistance leaders, artists and ordinary music-happy citizens. But, despite the lack of participation from commentators with no role or stake in events, enough is objectively conveyed in archival footage from the late 1980s and early ’90s to warrant attention (including how the period’s bad hairstyles and fashion sense easily penetrated the Iron Curtain). Even diehard exponents of the Soviet Union can appreciate what is revealed about the character and collective will of Estonia’s one million citizens.

How much singing actually had to do with the country gaining its independence from Russia in 1991, after 50 years of occupation and repression, is another question. The documentary sometimes brings to mind those public television programs featuring flyover tours of various countries— Visions of Estonia. Instead of castles and villages, we get shots of handsome, full-throated Estonians doing what they apparently like to do most: sing. Co-directors Maureen and James Tusty passionately maintain the premise that culture—in the particular form of one folk anthem that anchored an annual song festival—held the people together. “We started our revolution with a smile and a song,” says the artist/activist who coined the term "Singing Revolution."

Even if the connection between singing and self-determination wasn’t strictly causal, music provided the occasion for Estonians to keep their deeply felt patriotism alive. Translating that spirit into active defiance was the work of three distinct political organizations and owed much to the national traits of patience and caution. And of course, independence was only possible because the Soviet Union was fraying in many places, including, violently, in Estonia’s Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania. Though slightly overstated, the part played by singing was no doubt significant. Its implied role in keeping the Estonian revolution nonviolent is especially stirring.

Distributor: Mountain View
Directors: Maureen Castle Tusty and James Tusty
Screenwriter: Mike Majoros
Producers: Maureen Castle Tusty, James Tusty, Bestor Cram, Artur Talvik, Piret Tibbo-Hudgins, and Thor Halvorssen
Genre: Documentary; English, Russian and Estonian-language, subtitled.
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 96 min.
Release date: December 7, 2007 LA, December 14 NY

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