An Estonian postcard to the world. 'Freedom's Ring': The story of the Hiiumaa bell

  • 2000-07-06
  • By Jaclyn M. Sindrich
Six years ago, Douglas Wells was a spirited U.S. Peace Corps
volunteer working on the tiny northwestern Estonian island of
Hiiumaa. He had come from Omaha, Nebraska three years before, just
when Estonia had regained its independence after 50 years of
occupation by the Soviet Union. Assigned to help facilitate the
island's economic development after the long period of isolation, he
worked as a small business adviser at the local tourist information

One day that spring, Douglas writes, he was at the center as usual,
looking forward to the new tourist season.

Suddenly, an old man with a thatch of white hair burst through the
door and cried, "Are you Douglas Wells?" Douglas, taken aback,
replied that he was. The man looked at him intensely and lowered his
voice. "Do you still have that metal detector?" he asked.

Douglas told him he did have a metal detector. The old man grabbed
his wrist, and cried, "You've got to help me!"

The day that had begun like any other quickly changed, and the events
unfolding thereafter would stay with Douglas for a long time to come.

The old man turned out to be Jetter Tull, a friend of one of the five
men from a sleepy village called Emmaste on Hiiumaa island who,
in1943, during the turmoil of World War II, decided to rescue a
treasured symbol of their village from Nazi pillagers: the church
bell. The men climbed up into the bell tower in the middle of the
night, took down the 400-pound solid brass bell, and buried it in the

They planned to return to dig up the bell and take it back up to its
tower as soon as the danger had passed. But the war raged on. Some of
the men escaped to the West, others became victims. When the war
finally ended, Estonia was sealed off as part of the Soviet Union,
and any hopes of recovering the bell had all but disappeared.

As the years passed on, rumors circulated around Hiiumaa that one of
the men, who was now on his deathbed in Sweden, had secretly
retrieved the bell and cashed in on it. His loyal friend, Jetter,
made the trip to Estonia to find the bell at last and clear his
friend's name.

He excitedly brought a reluctant Douglas Wells, metal detector in
tow, to search sites in the forest, but the bell was not to be found.
That December, Jetter received a tip on the bell's whereabouts from
the only other survivor, who had been living in Canada.

An iron-willed Jetter dragged Douglas back out in torrential rains to
look once again.

Douglas swept his metal detector around and around, but still, there
was only silence.

The two were ready to give up, with the freezing rain soaking their
clothes, when Jetter urged him to try one last spot near a
construction site.

This time, they were lucky.

Soon, after 40 years under the earth, the bell of Emmaste Church was
pulled to the surface.

The celebration began.

The people of Hiiumaa were in disbelief; tears of joy erupted
throughout Estonia.

On Christmas Eve morning, President Lennart Meri declared his salary
for the month would be given to Emmaste Church for restoring the bell
to the tower.

Meri personally thanked Douglas, and said in a national speech: "The
hidden [bell's] exact location faded from memory, but the memory of
the bell waiting for its time to come burned bright. Let the wondrous
return of the Emmaste bell to its tower be a present-day Christmas
present to all Estonian people."

Douglas Wells stayed for four more years in Estonia, then returned to
the United States with his Estonian wife, Kairit.

But the story of the bell was not put to rest.

Last year, independent Hollywood film producer for Critical Mass
Films, Joel Waters, approached Douglas and bought the rights to his

Reporter Jaclyn Sindrich interviewed Wells and Waters about their
experiences with the Emmaste bell story and its film
adaptation-in-the-making, to be called "Freedom's Ring."

To Douglas Wells:

- How long did it take before you realized the impact of this discovery?

Douglas Wells: I knew it was a big event, considering it got out on
the news wire and got a lot of press in Estonia, plus it drew the
attention of the Estonian president.

- Do you still keep in contact with the people from Hiiumaa?

Oh, sure. I keep in touch with the info center folks and others on a
more or less regular basis. I really loved being on Hiiumaa and it
still has a special place in my heart.

- Where is the old man who found the bell with you? And the one who was
in Canada?

Jetter Tull shuttles back and forth between Sweden, Tallinn and
Emmaste. I don't know about the guy in Canada.

- Where had you published a story about your experience?

Well, the bell story had been in the "City Paper" and in a few other
Estonian-American publications. I am working on a book now which
contains a lot of other short stories from Hiiumaa Island and these
shorts have already been in Hiiumaa's newspaper, plus
Estonian-American newspapers in Canada and the U.S.

- How much control do you have over the content or making of the film, if any?

I do have input into the making of the film which was the reason I
went with Joel over some others that were interested. Things are
still in the early phases.

- How has this experience changed your life?

Well, I learned a lot from Estonians and there are a lot of humorous
and touching things that happened, the most important being meeting
my wife while on the island. It changed my life in the sense that
because of Hiiumaa I got to work with the United Nations and the
Estonian Tourist Board in Tallinn, which led to a stint at the
Estonian embassy in Washington.

- What do you hope this film does for Estonia?

That is really the core issue. I really would like people to know
more about Hiiumaa and Estonia and this is a wonderful opportunity.

To Joel Waters:

What did you think when you first read Douglas' story?

I was very aware of the story because I served with Douglas in Peace
Corps. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukmerge, Lithuania from
1993-1995. When I first heard the story, shortly after the events
happened, I found it extremely moving. When I ran across the story
again in 1999 I found it just as moving. It was then that it suddenly
occurred to me that this would be a great movie. To me it was much
more than a great idea, it was a calling. My Christian faith is a
very important part of my life, so for me, telling this story was not
just about sharing my connection with the Baltics or telling a Peace
Corps story. At its core, I think, this story is about the power of
faith, and God's enduring grace. That being said, we have no
intention of making this into a Christian film. While it has a
spiritual message to it, this message will be presented in a form
that transcends any specific religion.

There are few stories that can consistently draw an emotional
response out of people, particularly in this day and age when the
evening news desensitizes us to violence and suffering. For me, there
is only one film that consistently draws from me an emotional
response: "It's a Wonderful Life." I doubt many Balts are familiar
with this film, but just about every American knows it. "It's a
Wonderful Life" is still as popular today as it was 55 years ago,
because no matter how many times you watch it you can't escape being
drawn to tears. I believe the "Freedom's Ring" story has exactly
these qualities that will make it not just a great film, but an
enduring classic.

- Had you ever heard of Estonia previously?

Of course I had, but I think most Americans have not. We really hope
that this film will serve as an Estonian postcard to the world.

- Are you aiming to include the participation of native Estonians in
this project? If so, on what levels?

We hope to cast some Estonians as supporting cast, and we will
certainly hire many Estonians to the production crew. The principal
actors, however, will be mainstream Hollywood actors. It is important
that our principal cast be actors that will draw an audience. For
instance, we would really like to have Mena Suvari [Estonian-American
who starred in "American Pie" and "American Beauty"] play the role of
Douglas Wells' love interest, Kairit. Kairit, now Douglas's wife,
made that casting suggestion, and I think it's a brilliant idea.

- Have you gotten any investors yet?

We are in negotiations right now regarding the primary film
financing. Since the deal has not been signed, I am not free to
discuss who the potential financier is, but my confidence is high
that we will eventually come to an agreement. Of course, President
Meri is one of our contributors. White's Electronics, the company
that manufactured the metal detector which Douglas Wells used to find
the bell, is definitely on board for some product placement. We also
hope to find some investors next month at Esto 2000.

- How much will your film cost?

We have yet to work out a budget, but our best guesstimate is $5 million.

- What progress have you made so far?

In order to make a great movie the elements are a great story, a
great script, a great director, great actors, and lots of money. Thus
far we have a great story, we do not yet have a great script, but we
have a great screenwriter in Wayne Lehrer, so the great script is
imminent. Wayne Lehrer is also a very talented director, money is
also in the works, so I think we are in great shape.

- When will it be released?

My best guess for the release of this film is possibly Christmas
2001, but more likely Christmas 2002. We definitely see it as a
Christmas release.

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