The Singing Revolution

On his stellar, ambitious 1987 album Nothing Like the Sun, Sting included a track titled “They Dance Alone”, a tribute to bereaved Chilean mothers whose sons had “disappeared” under the cruel dictatorship of now-deposed Augusto Pinochet. “The only form of protest they’re allowed…”, the Englishman croons, referring to a silent dance the grief-stricken mothers perform, without partners, to express their disgust with the regime.

Some may argue that such humble activity hardly equates dissent, but in their recent documentary The Singing Revolution, filmmakers Maureen Castle Tusty, husband James, and Mike Majoros contend that peaceful artistic expression can form the bedrock of social revolution.

The ex-Soviet territory of Estonia has for centuries been a coveted prize among powerful Continental empires. Ruled variously by the Danes, Teutons, Swedes – yes, even those seemingly tolerant Volvo-driving, Ikea-shopping blondes — Russians, and assorted other flaxen-haired party-crashers, this flat, glacial plain overlooking the murky Baltic has known freedom for only 35 years during the post-Roman period, first between the two cataclysmic World Wars, and following the dissolution of its most recent master, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

And treacherous overlords they were. Indeed, the Soviet Army’s routing of Der Fuhrer’s forces in 1944 only shoved Estonians from the frying pan into the fire. And the nation remained under Soviet boot heels until the union collapsed under its own fiscally-challenged weight at the end of the ‘80s.

Narrated by the diminutive Linda Hunt, The Singing Revolution focuses partly on Estonia’s rich, pervasive history of song. Since the mid-19th century, the country has staged a song festival, called Laulupidu, a semi-annual extravaganza which always served to “unite the country”, according to the filmmakers. The festival features cast-of-thousands choirs who chant classical Estonian folk tunes. It’s a society in which choral singing plays an integral role in every child’s development.

Apparently, however, this ubiquitous warbling provides more than just giddy pleasure; numerous interview subjects in this documentary argue that their fellow citizens’ singing of traditional Estonian folk tunes creates a sort of cultural glue which helped sustain the populace – which has reportedly occupied this northern terrain for more than five millennia — through darker times than most of us can imagine.

In 1939, during an early storm surge of the Second World War, would-be Masters of The Universe Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin cemented the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which essentially carved up mainland Europe in the same manner that Africa was divided at the Berlin Conference some 50+ years earlier. Estonia had only enjoyed independence since 1920, but now had fallen into the vise-like grip of a paranoiac many historians feel trumps Hitler for sheer mayhem.

Stalin deported thousands of Estonian nationals – those cheek enough to resist — to Siberian gulags in 1941, at least a third of whom were children, and many never returned. One could term this a ‘Hidden Holocaust’, although it’s often referred to as “The Year Of Suffering”. Nazi forces arrived the same year, hardly a joyous event. For years afterward, Estonia — and neighboring Lithuania and Latvia – were trapped in this epic tug-of-war, but the eventual pacification of Hitler’s minions placed the country back under Stalin’s gaze.

What occurred in the following two decades was a firm “Russification” of war-ravaged Estonia, as the Soviets put their new subjects on a strict diet of Russian culture and history, which included a ban on Christmas celebrations in private homes.

Laulupidu was revived, amazingly, in 1947, the first observance of the festival since the Russian takover. The unofficial Estonian national anthem, “Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love” was set to new music and performed, but the Soviets said nyet to the tune in the ‘50s, and it would remain off the fest’s program well into the ‘60s. At Laulupidu 1969, Soviet authorities directed a military band to drown out a performance of the tune, but were unsuccessful against the Spectorian crescendo of 100,000 honey-voiced crooners. “Mu Isamaa On Minu Arm” was never again forbidden.

Not surprisingly, Estonians became increasingly defiant at the end of the ‘60s, as did oppressed groups/cultures across the globe. A nascent liberation movement coalesced, with militaristic resistors such as the Forest Brothers – think John Rambo in First Blood – and Interfront. The Estonian Rambos were crushed by Soviet forces in 1978, but the die was cast and, a few years on, the forward-thinking Mikhail Gorbachev would enable a loosening of the reins, setting in motion a chain of events which would undo one of the legendary superpowers of the modern era.

This DVD release features numerous extras, among them several short films, including a Soviet propaganda piece reminiscent of our own kitschy “mental hygiene” classroom flicks of the postwar era, a newsreel of the fabled Yalta Conference, at which an ailing FDR caved in to Russian demands for control over the East European bloc – the phrase “if only” hangs over this film like a shroud — and a documentary covering 1956’s Hungarian Revolution.

We also get several “talking head” interviews, the first explaining how the Soviets mis-educated the locals, as elderly Estonians recall their school days, with a hilarious tale of “haircut rebellion” and remembrances of a local punk rock scene. We’re also told about the 1987 demonstration in Hirve Park, and the paradoxical waning of Estonian political theater as newspapers opened up to political debate. Finally, the Tustys themselves speak on camera, reasserting their belief that music helped transform Estonia. Curiously, there are additional DVD editions of this film, with more extras than a Cecil B. DeMille film, and one wonders why all the bells and whistles can’t be included in a single package.

Well…perhaps it ain’t that simple. I have nothing but respect for Estonia’s lovely tradition of folk singing – supported by an enormous assortment of songs – but it’s unclear exactly how this provoked the political courage to defy the Soviets. One can certainly argue that performances of “Mu Isamaa On Minu Arm” were wielded like a weapon against authority, but in the ‘70s and ‘80s, shrewd tactical maneuvering – albeit sans bloodshed — ultimately proved the true instrument of liberation.

It’s evident that The Singing Revolution is advocacy journalism, and its themes of the underdog triumphing, or David trouncing Goliath, obviously have universal appeal. I won’t dwell on the fact that the film offers no voices which challenge the standard orthodoxy or presents any Estonian black-hats who might have covertly supported Russian control, because the historical record seems to confirm much of the information delivered. Also, you won’t find any impressionistic visual flourishes here, as it would never be confused with an Errol Morris doc, but rather, a prime-time special on the History Channel – sometimes derisively labeled “The Hitler Channel”, for its relentless coverage of Nazi “secrets”.

The Singing Revolution remains a tense account of Estonia’s breakaway from the Soviet Union, and derives some of its power from not being an oft-told story in the global media. And a terrific companion piece it would make for the 2002 documentary Estonia Dreams of Eurovision, a inside look at catty backstage doings as Estonia hosts Europe’s musical show of all shows. Plus, “Mu Isamaa On Minu Arm” does yank the heartstrings, I must admit.

RATING 6 / 10