"What role can singing play when a nation is faced with annihilation by its neighbors?" actress and narrator Linda Hunt asks at the beginning of the documentary The Singing Revolution. "Can culture hold a people together?"
You can guess the answer to these possibly idealistic questions. The Singing Revolution makes the impossible seem possible – that little Estonia combined a love of its culture with unprecedented patience and nonviolence to achieve independence after decades of oppression. The nation, with its population of 1 million, spent the better part of the 20th century under various forms of occupation, first with the Russians, then the Nazis and then the Russians again following the end of World War II.
James Tusty, who made the film with his wife, Maureen Castle Tusty, has a personal stake in the movie; his father emigrated to the United States from Estonia in the 1920s just as the Russians began their first round of occupation. Tusty proves a dogged filmmaker, accepting the difficult challenge of setting a nation's struggle against the backdrop of its passion for music without seeming idealistic or saccharine. (After all, who wants to make the Sound of Music of documentaries?)
That passion is laid out in a methodical but poetic fashion, as Hunt's narration explains the nation's love of music as best heard at its annual Song Festival. The sights and sounds of witnessing 30,000 voices unified in one song – and in particular, the nation anthem born under occupation, "Land of My Fathers" – come off as a moving metaphor. The camera pans and scans the people, young and old, as they defiantly sing for their common identity: "For her a hundred times I shall give my life. You are still alive in my heart."
For a small nation that once claimed the world's largest collection of folk songs, the Song Festival, founded in 1869, reinforced the people's unique story. Or, as Venno Laul, founder of Estonia's boys choir, puts it: "We are so few in number that we must emphasize that we exist."
At times, it seems as if Estonians were singing like their lives depended on it. "Land of My Fathers," for example, debuted at the Song Festival in 1947 after the Soviets reclaimed Estonia from the Germans and immediately resumed its oppression. The song came from a well-known poem, its defiant language ("My flourishing Estonia!") slipping through the Soviet censors. The performance was said to comfort the people mourning the return of their old occupiers.
The anthem played another pivotal role at the 1969 Song Festival, its centennial celebration, when the Soviets banned the song and any traditional clothing. But at the end of the festival, the choir refused to leave the stage, the band continued playing, and the choir sang in unison "Land of My Fathers" to the delight of their countrymen.
Archival festival footage mixes with contemporary footage, underscoring the celebration's timeless quality. But as Estonia's story enters the more pivotal, volatile period of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his reform-minded policies of the 1980s, music takes a back seat to the political intrigue that ultimately led to the nation's independence. The Estonians' carefully executed resistance, as explained by many of those who lived it, becomes just as compelling as any musical footnotes. The path to independence, so amazingly free of violence, is a movie unto itself, making the music angle a little trite.
But by then, The Singing Revolution's soundtrack had already hit its notes, and the viewer is able to remember a little nation with a big story to tell – almost perfectly on key.
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