Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Opening Friday: The Singing Revolution

Imagine thirty-thousand Estonians all singing in harmony. It may sound like a colossal Coca-Cola commercial, but for the Soviets it proved to be a nightmare. The word “inspirational” is almost meaningless through overuse, but it truly applies to The Singing Revolution (trailer below), a new documentary which takes its name from Estonia’s struggle for independence from the Soviet Union.

As well documented by principle producer-directors James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty, the Singing Revolution was so named for the role Estonian singing traditions played in their resistance to the Soviets. Central to this story is the quinquennial Laulupidu Song Festival, which had repeatedly been the scene of mass defiance of the Soviet Rule. While the 1947 Song Festival was designed to be a celebration of Stalin’s regime, an Estonian composer slipped past the censors a song based on the patriotic Estonian poem “Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love,” immediately establishing it as the underground national song.

The 1969 festival was again the scene of national self-assertion, as tens of thousands of Estonians spontaneously broke into their forbidden anthem. These song festivals proved to be the model for mass demonstrations against their Soviet oppressors during the waning days of Glasnost, defining the Estonian democracy movement.

One of the many revelations of Singing is the extent of Estonian resistance to the Soviet occupiers, notably from the so-called Forest Brothers partisans, the last of who were finally captured in 1978. Indeed, the filmmakers make the history of Soviet oppression crystal clear. It was the Soviets who first invaded Estonian in 1939 as part of the Molotov-Rippentrop (so-called Hitler-Stalin) Pact, which divided Eastern Europe between the two dictators, and resulted in mass executions and the deportations of hundreds of thousands of Estonians to Siberia. It puts in perspective the Estonian government’s recent controversial decision to dismantle a memorial to the Soviet war dead.

Singing takes pains to be fair to every party involved in the Singing Revolution. Even Vaino Väljas, the final Estonian Party Secretary appointed by Moscow, is given credit for gracefully accepting the will of the people. Other Estonian Communists, particularly ethnic Russians, were not so civilized, but amazingly, the Singing Revolution would be entirely bloodless.

This is a very well put together film. The music is well chosen for both illustrative and dramatic effect. Linda Hunt’s narration is clear and authoritative. The filmmakers have collected some amazing archival footage and conducted many insightful interviews. Wisely, they completely eschewed the usual talking head academics, in favor of the people who really lived the story.

More than just a lesson in history and politics, Singing is about courage, both on the individual and collective level. It is about two police officers charged with protecting the country’s only radio transmitter tower from the invading Soviet army. It is also about hundreds of thousands of Estonians who took to the streets to protest the Soviets and to protect the Estonian government from rioting Communists affiliated with the Interfront faction.

The stories of Singing are truly moving, especially when accompanied by the stirring large scale chorale music of Laulupidu. These events should be common knowledge, yet the recent history of the Estonian Singing Revolution, the Czech Velvet Revolution, and other such courageous movements seeking freedom from Communist rule, are being ignored, forgotten or otherwise discounted these days. Singing Revolution is an excellent antidote. It should be seen by every student in America, as it speaks directly about what it means to be a citizen and to live in a free society. In fact, this film is increasingly timely, as Putin continues to chart an alarmingly neo-Soviet course for Russia.

It opens this Friday in New York at the Village East Cinema. Kite Runner opens the same day, which is also a great film, but Singing will have a more limited window to reach an audience, so interested viewers should make it their priority. Seeking it out is highly recommended.

(Note: The directors will be attending the 7:00 shows on the 14th and 15th for Q&A sessions.)