The Singing Revolution
|Linda Hunt||Narrator (voice)|
|Directed by||James Tusty, Maureen Castle Tusty|
It’s a set-up right out of Casablanca. In one of the most stirring moments of that wartime classic, the Germans in Rick’s start singing “Deutschland über alles”. Victor Lazlo strides up to the bandstand. “Play ‘The Marseillaise,’” he says. The bandleader looks nervously up at Rick, who has appeared on the balcony outside his office. Rick nods. The band strikes up the French anthem, the patrons and staff sing it lustily, drowning out the Nazis. It is a moment of pure, spine-tingling nationalist resistance. This time we know our side will win.
Estonia is a country most Americans could not find on a map with a GPS. But little Estonia, population of about a million, had its Casablanca moment in the spring of 1969. It was the 100th anniversary of the country’s national song festival, Laulupidu, which happens every five years and embodies Estonian patriotism like nothing we can imagine. Estonia had been under the Soviet yoke since the end of WWII. The occupiers had done all they could to eradicate any sense of Estonian tradition, and had turned the festival over to Soviet propaganda songs. But that year, the chorus performers remained onstage at the end of the regular program and sang their unofficial national anthem, “Land of my fathers, land that I love.” When they realized what it was, the Soviet authorities tried to drown them out with a brass band, but it was no use. The crowd, 25,000 strong, joined in, and like the Germans in Rick’s, the Russians had to beat a tactical retreat. That wasn’t the last of it, of course. But the door had been opened a crack. It was a stunning evocation of the power of song.
The Tustys use historic film footage, talking heads, and a voice-over narrated by Linda Hunt to recap the history of the tiny nation whose situation as the northernmost of the Baltic states makes it an irresistible passageway between Europe and Russia. Through the centuries Estonia has been walked over and occupied by Germans, Russians, and Scandinavians, but still managed to preserve its own identity. For a euphoric two decades between World Wars it savored a moment of independence, but with the Nazi rumblings of German manifest destiny that moment was doomed. In 1939 the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact carved up the smaller states of Eastern Europe, and awarded Estonia to Stalin. A couple of years later Hitler decided he wanted it, and took it. When Germany went down to defeat, Stalin conned Churchill and FDR into giving it back to the Soviet Union, and the beleaguered country stayed behind the Iron Curtain until that curtain rusted and fell in the early ‘90s. Estonia had a lot to do with that.
When Mikhail Gorbachev opened the Pandora’s Box of Glasnost and Perestroika, Estonians started testing the waters. As activist Mart Laar recalls, “People talked. When they saw they weren’t being arrested, they talked more.” When Estonia started passing its own laws, and superseding Soviet legislation, Gorby got testy. But as one Estonian remarks, “the ghost was out of the bottle.”
It was all pulled off, amazingly, without violence. (Though it wasn’t all singing; a band of guerrillas called the Forest Brothers provided a grimmer kind of resistance.) Says Heinz Valk, who wrote an article that came up with the term The Singing Revolution, “We started our revolution with a smile and a song.” There were moments when mass violence came uncomfortably close. Russia had flooded the country with settlers to dilute its sense of nationalism, and when Estonia moved toward independence, a mob of Russian protesters stormed the parliament building and threatened to take it over by force. The lawmakers broadcast a radio appeal to citizens, who flocked to the government building by the thousands. And then, in a remarkable display of self-control, the crowd parted peaceably to form a corridor by which the terrified Russians could file safely out.
The thrill of this documentary is in the remarkable story of the Little Country That Could. At a rally, Valk coined the motto that lifted his countrymen’s spirits and kept their eyes on the prize: “One day,” he declaimed, “no matter what, we will win!” From then on, he admits a little sheepishly, he could not speak in public without the crowd chanting “Heinz, say it!”
As a film, The Singing Revolution is no better than it should be. It is workmanlike and straightforward. The footage of the countryside of contemporary Estonia is lovely, but there are no cinematic surprises, and the drama is in the situation, not noticeably in the presentation. If there is particular disappointment, it is that there isn’t enough singing. The choral rehearsals and the swelling performances at the festival are wonderful, but they get crowded out. The testimony of those who were involved, and of older people who were shipped off to the Soviet gulag back in the ‘40s, are interesting and sometimes powerful, but it is the musical passages and the glowing faces of the singers and their passionate conductors that are really inspiring.
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be