Singing Revolution takes the big screen

  • 2007-02-07
  • By Joel Alas

CAST OF THOUSANDS: The 2004 Song Festival provided a perfect backdrop for revisiting the emotional events of the late 1980s.

TALLINN - "This is a story that has never been told outside Estonia. We felt it was time the rest of the world knew what happened here." James Tusty is an American filmmaker with Estonian heritage. Through most of his career, he has focused on producing commercials and television programs. When it came time to create his first full-length feature movie, Tusty chose to focus on one of the most inspirational chapters of the Soviet collapse - the Singing Revolution.

In the late '80s and early '90s, the television cameras of the West were more focused on the dramatic elements of the transition - the fall of the Berlin Wall, the arrival of democracy in Moscow.

"Only Baltic people know Baltic history," Tusty says. "I had never heard of the Singing Revolution until I visited Estonia in the late 90s. I knew the U.S.S.R. had collapsed, but I didn't know any details beyond that."
He now knows more about the Singing Revolution than any Westerner, and possibly more than most Estonians. After devoting six years to recording the history of the event, Tusty - with his wife and co-producer Maureen - could well claim to be among the world's leading experts on the topic.

The result of their work is the 90-minute English-language documentary, simply titled "The Singing Revolution," which opened for general release in Estonian cinemas last month.
It premiered at last year's Black Nights Film Festival, where a packed cinema stood for a full 15 minutes to give a rousing standing ovation that moved the Tustys to tears.
Tears seem to flow wherever the film is screened - the emotion of the music and the story spark a reaction amongst Estonians and foreigners alike.

The story behind the creation of the film is similarly inspiring.
What the Tustys have created may just be the first detailed history of the events of the push for independence - some elements of which even Estonians admitted to having no knowledge. They unearthed unseen archival footage from musty boxes, precious recordings of life in Soviet times, captured by home filmmakers. And they threaded it together into a piece of cinema that avoids being boring, sappy, overly dramatic or tedious.

Raised in the United States by expatriate Estonian parents, Tusty was a frequent visitor to the nation from the mid-'80s onward. In 1999 James and Maureen moved to Tallinn to teach filmmaking courses at the now-defunct Concordia University. It was during this period that they first became interested in the events of the Singing Revolution, and they returned in 2001 to gather more information about the event.
Work began in ernest in 2003 when the Tustys realized that the 2004 Song Festival was approaching, a perfect event to hook the story on. It took three trips, 40 days of filming, and on-camera interviews with over 40 people to acquire some 80 hours of footage.

"The shooting was very powerful," says Maureen. "To meet these people and talk to them about their experiences was overwhelming. We got so many new details in the interview process. I think the shortest interview was two hours long."
The film itself shows the depth of their interview process - the Tustys spoke to every major figure involved in the transition to independence, including some figures who have been rather reluctant to tell their stories. Along with political figures such as Mart Laar, Edgar Savisaar, Arnold Ruutel, Lennart Meri and Vaino Valjas, they interviewed Alfred Kaarmaan, one of the last surviving Forest Brothers, the band of resilient freedom fighters who took to the woods.

One of the most impressive features of the film is the large presentation of historical footage, much of it never seen before.
"It was an enormous task to find it. We were relentless. It's very difficult to find footage of Soviet brutality. Most of the historical footage of German concentration camps was taken at the end of World War II, as the prisoners were being freed and the camps demolished. Of course, in the Soviet Union, the prisoners were never freed by a liberating army, so finding any footage of the gulags is almost impossible. As well as official archives, we went to a home movie society in Estonia. Some of the best footage of all came from people shooting their home movies in the 60s."

The film isn't without faults - even Tusty admits to glossing over some of the more contentious elements of Estonian history, in particular its approach to the question of Estonia's cooperation with the occupying Nazis in the early 1940s.
In "The Singing Revolution," the narrator paints a picture of resistance to the occupying Nazi forces, whereas in reality many Estonians willingly joined the Germans to fight the Russians.
Tusty ceeds that this was a subject that required more than a fleeting and overly-simplified mention.
"What we believed after our research was that the vast majority of people who joined the German army were not pro-Nazi, but were anti-Stalin. As they say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So we had a difficult choice about how to present this part of history. We felt that this whole subject was another film in itself.

"I agree that we over-simplified the situation with that one line, but we had to make a decision. The focus of the film was the Singing Revolution itself, and the first half hour of history was only to bring the foreign audience up to speed."
Indeed, singing dominates this film. It continually harks back to the theme of song, explaining how it was and remains an important part of Estonian culture. Its power as an element of resistance is highlighted through footage of Soviet-era song festivals, when Estonians dared to sing homages to their fatherland in defiance of the government censors.

This theme is furthered as the film progresses to its climax - the dramatic gatherings at Tallinn's Song Festival Grounds at which the banned national flag was unfurled and the crowds joined arms to sing for their independence. There's an undefinable emotional impact to watching thousands of Estonians, arms linked and faces streaked with tears.
But singing alone did not set Estonia free. The film presents, possibly for the first time, a clear record of the political machinations that were underway parallel to the gatherings at the Song Festival Grounds. Unbeknownst to many outsiders, and even some Estonians, the political forces that pushed for independence were far from a united front.

"I think the film actually softens how fractured the Estonian political situation was at that time. There were three different movements, but we decided not to judge any of them harshly. They all had their viewpoints. Until now, the history of this period has been told from the viewpoint of one of these movements, and we decided to show all three together. We decided there would be no bad guys in the story. There were many different people who wanted to take different approaches with the Soviets, some of them cautious and some of them bold. But all of them wanted Estonia to be free in their hearts."
For the Tustys, "The Singing Revolution" was and remains a labor of love. Although they were able to gather funds from donors, cultural groups and an Estonian co-production company, the film is yet to recoup its costs.
"Our intended audience has always been people in the West. So how do we now get people in the West interested enough to come to a cinema to watch it?"

Tusty knows he has a fight on his hands. It will be a challenge, firstly, to get U.S. cinemas to screen the film, and a further challenge to gather funds for a promotional budget. In the end, it may come down to an educational release in schools and colleges.
But Tusty doesn't sound phased by the talk of money. He seems content to have created such a precious documentation of history.

"This film, we hope, is evergreen. It may not be a top hit, but the nature of the subject will be of value for years to come, at least for scholars and people who want to learn about history."
For now, those who want to watch the film can see the Estonian release, complete with English subtitles, at Soprus Cinema in Tallinn.