Voice for freedom

The Singing Revolution
United States, 2007
Directed By: James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty
Written By: Mike Majoros, James Tusty, Maureen Castle Tusty
Starring: Linda Hunt (narrator)
Running Time: 94 minutes
Not Rated
4 out of 5 stars

I take a lot of things for granted, although perhaps less than some. I spent my teenage years in a borderline third world country where I shared a small room with both my siblings. It’s the small things you tend to miss. At the store there were two choices of soda: coke or sprite; our electric water heater limited hot showers to 2 minutes; and English reading material was at a premium—I devoured my books in mere days. Living in the states within that context, I appreciate the things I’ve had to live without: the sheer number of choices the grocery store has to offer, the 15 minutes I spend on average in the shower now, and the library and local bookstores, which I can lose myself in for hours. However, watching The Singing Revolution last night, I realized I had taken one Big Thing for granted, in large part because I’ve never had to live without it: my freedom.

Estonia is one of the three Baltic States in Northern Europe, bordered to the south by Latvia and to the east by the Russian Federation. In 1918 they declared independence from the Russian Empire and tasted freedom for over 20 years. Then, in 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed between Germany and Russia, effectively dividing Europe between the Nazis and the communists. The freedom Estonia had enjoyed for two decades evaporated as 90,000 Soviet troops marched across the border and into their tiny nation. When Hitler betrayed Stalin and marched on Russia, Estonia changed hands a second time, a mere pawn to be toyed with by its powerful neighbors.

When Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met at Yalta in 1945, the two western leaders were assured that Estonia would receive its independence back after the war, but once the Nazis were ground into the dust, that promise was never kept. The Red Army quickly marched back into Estonia, subjugating it once and for all. World War II decimated the tiny country; a full 25% of its population was wiped out.

Told through extensive archival footage and intimate interviews with the people who lived through the events, The Singing Revolution chronicles how the Soviets attempted to eradicate every shred of Estonian culture and national identity through an intense process of Russification, and how they ultimately failed {mosimage}because of a song. Every 5 years the Estonians would come together for a massive choral celebration, with over 20,000 singers on stage at once. The Soviets milked the festival for every ounce of propaganda that they could, forcing songs about socialism and Stalin (and later Lenin) into the program. The Estonians reluctantly obliged, but would rebel at the end of the program, proudly belting out their unofficial national anthem. As one interviewee says, when 25,000 people get it into their heads to sing a song, there is nothing you can do to stop them.

Unfortunately, the middle section of the film drags considerably. As stirring as the initial images are, once you’ve seen your fourth archival montage of Estonian folk singing, you begin to check your watch. The problem seems to be that directors James and Maureen Castle Tusty feel an unnecessary responsibility to document every step of the Estonians fight for independence. As noble as that intention is, the film bogs down when we’re given the play-by-play of every significant singing demonstration and protest. The tedium is further compounded by the relative staleness of some of the interviews. For all the atrocities and triumphs that these people have endured, I do not think I saw one of them shed a tear. While I’ll chalk that up to cultural pragmatism, it makes for dull, matter-of-fact interviews. Even at a short 94 minutes, it is about 10 minutes too long.

In spite of this, the final act is emotionally stunning in the way that all great human drama is. Through patient and peaceful means, Estonia slowly asserted its independence one day at a time, and in 1991 they finally achieved it. That they did so without a single violent protest, without any loss of life, is simply mind-boggling. If someone were to have told me that a revolution could be achieved non-violently through singing, I would have laughed at their idealism, but the proof is right there on screen. Shame on my cynicism.

Given the present global climate, with China occupying Tibet in the exact same fashion as the Soviets occupied Estonia, The Singing Revolution is more relevant than ever. Not only is it a chilling reminder of the fragility and preciousness of freedom, it is also a call to action. Estonia is finally free, but Tibet and other nations like it are not. That something as simple as a song could bring about lasting change is a direct challenge to anyone who excuses themselves on the basis that they’re “too tiny to make a difference.”

I hope I don’t take my freedom for granted as often now. It is a luxury that other people do not possess.

The Singing Revolution is currently playing at the Circle Cinema. Call 592-FILM for showtimes and more information.

About the Author:
Evan Derrick loves movies, loves talking about movies, and even makes them from time to time. In the rare moment when movies aren’t consuming his grey matter, he enjoys eating grilled cheese sandwiches, playing with his baby daughter, and pretending to be the senior editor for MovieZeal.com. Use the Tulsa Today search feature to read previous reviews by this author.