The Singing Revolution Movie Review

When one of the participants in Estonia's bloodless "singing revolution," an affable activist/artist named Heinz Valk, tells the camera that they successfully chased out the Soviets with "a song and a smile," it's a striking moment. Nowhere else could culture, song, and defiance come together so powerfully as they did in the small Baltic nation of Estonia. Revolutions, by and large, are often marked by dramatic upheaval -- fires in the streets, bullets passing overhead, tanks rumbling through cities, bodies, blood, and tears -- they rarely happen in slow, determined waves of peace. And I doubt there have been many successful revolutions, like Estonia's, fought in song.

James and Maureen Castle Tusty's 2006 documentary, The Singing Revolution, is a superb tribute to Estonia's accomplishment. Comprised mostly of archival footage, interspersed with modern interviews, The Singing Revolution not only provides a detailed (though never dull) overview of the revolution but also of Estonian culture.

Estonia has had a long history of foreign occupation. The Swedes, the Danes, the Germans... for most of Estonia's early history it was an occupied by one larger country or another. Following a few very brief years of independence, the country was annexed by the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, and then the Soviet Union again in 1944. The Singing Revolution really starts here, with the subjugation of Estonia by WWII's most tyrannical forces. The Nazis shipped them off to camps. The Russians shipped them off to gulags. While there was a guerilla war in the '50s (Estonian had "forest brothers," one of whom is interviewed in the film), Estonia was firmly in the grip of the USSR. And this is when something amazing began to happen.

Estonians love to sing. It's as though they're programmed for it. They sing as children and as adults. Young and old alike delight in folk songs and hymns and crowd the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds every year. And these people don't just stand around and listen to performers. They all sing. All of them. Vast crowds of thousands, hands linked together, flowers in their hair, swaying like a tide, they sing together. In the mid-'80s, dissatisfaction growing, participants at the festivals began to talk openly about singing Estonian anthems and waving Estonian flags (both banned outright under Soviet rule). In 1987, demonstrators, 300 thousand in number (1 out of every 3 Estonians), converged on the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds singing their hearts out and waving Estonian flags. This happened, and kept happening, for four years. And when Russia sent in tanks, in 1991, the Estonians formed human shields, singing in front of radio towers and television stations. With the Soviet Union crumbling in the background, Estonia officially declared independence on August 20, 1991.

While it sounds rather simple, a musical David vs. Goliath, there were, naturally, all manner of complications and confrontations. From rival Estonian groups vying for the public voice to Moscow's own undermining convulsions, the "singing revolution" was much more than a "love conquers all" unity fest. It's worth pondering if anything similar could happen in a country not as mono-cultural, or as small, as Estonia.

The Singing Revolution, as a documentary, is a sterling work. It's hard to watch this and not fall in love with the people of Estonia, but it's even harder to not come away with a renewed faith in humanity. The Singing Revolution is a film that joyfully celebrates the power of the human spirit in all its glory.

There are several DVD versions of the film: a single disc with special features (commentary and shorts), a three-disc collector's edition (with additional in-depth interviews, reproduced documents, and performances), as well as an educator's version (with special features similar to those included in the collector's edition.

Cast & Crew

Director : James Tusty, Maureen Castle Tusty

Producer : Bestor Cram, Thor Halvorssen, Artur Talvik, James Tusty, Maureen Castle Tusty

Starring : , Heiki Ahonen, Heinz Valk, Gustav Ernesaks, Tunne Kelam, Mari-Ann Kelam


The Singing Revolution Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 2006


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