How Estonia sang its way to freedom

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 A few days ago we wrote about Estonian bard Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald while bumping along on a train in Massachusetts here. That prompted colleague Lisa Trei to forward us her own recent article about the film The Singing Revolution (we wrote about it here).  A slightly shorter version of the article was published in the Stanford Post-Soviet Post here –  the entire piece is below.

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Estonia’s song festival – 25,000 onstage

The Singing Revolution,” a critically acclaimed documentary about Estonia’s non-violent struggle for freedom, tells the remarkable story of how a small nation used its cultural heritage to survive and, ultimately, defeat the Soviet empire.

Producer and Director Jim Tusty said he made the film because the story of how Estonia used its choral tradition to persevere during Soviet rule is largely unknown. “It’s David beating Goliath without even using a slingshot,” he said. “I just felt it was a great story to be shared with the world.”

Tusty and his wife and partner, Maureen Castle, first heard about the ‘singing revolution’ when a chance encounter in 1999 led the couple to teach filmmaking for three months in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The phrase refers to the period from 1987-91 when Estonians used non-violent resistance to challenge and, ultimately, break away from Soviet rule.

The couple, both experienced television program and commercial producers, wanted to learn more. “We were blown away,” Tusty said. When they returned to teach in Estonia in 2001, they decided to make what would be their first feature-length film. Tusty is of Estonian descent but does not speak the language and was not raised in the Estonian-American émigré community, which actively lobbied for independence during the Soviet occupation. Instead, Tusty said, he was attracted by the story’s intrinsic and dramatic value. “We did not make the film as a patriotic duty to Estonia,” he said.

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Soviet-era poster for the festival

Nevertheless, key funding for the film came from Stanford philanthropists Walter P. Kistler and his Estonian wife, Olga Ritso Kistler, as well as Steve Jurvetson, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist of Estonian descent. Many members of the émigré community also backed the project.

“The Singing Revolution” focuses on the ‘Laulupidu’ or Song Festival, which brings together community choirs and dancers from across Estonia to Tallinn every five years. For two days, up to 30,000 singers perform on an open-air stage before an audience of tens of thousands. Since its establishment in 1869 during Estonia’s first national awakening, the Song Festival has played a critical role in maintaining the country’s cultural identity, particularly during the half-century Soviet occupation. Even today, the festival continues to bring together more than 10 percent of Estonia’s population. When 140,000 Estonians sing together, as they did during the most recent festival, the intensity is palpable, Tusty said.

The filmmaker uses the backdrop of the 2004 Song Festival to frame the complicated narrative of the groups that vied to lead Estonia during its struggle for freedom. “We did not think it was just Peter, Paul and Mary singing on a hill and then all the tanks left,” Tusty said. “But we were naïve about the contentiousness among the independence groups within Estonia.”

posterThe film features interviews with the leaders of the three main groups—the Popular Front, which supported autonomy within the Soviet Union; the Heritage Society, which focused on cultural and historical nationalism; and the radical Estonian National Independence Party, which was led by anti-communist dissidents. Tusty’s task was to weave together a compelling narrative for a world audience that each group within the country would accept as fair and representative.

Tusty showed rough cuts of the film three times to the leaders of each group separately. “Not too many people challenged the facts, but they challenged the spin on the facts,” he said. “The first cut had a lot of comments. But to everyone’s credit, they didn’t just say everything they did was right and everything the other groups did was wrong.” By the time the third cut was completed, the reviewers agreed the story was fair.

“The Singing Revolution” premiered on Dec. 1, 2006, at the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn. Tusty said the Estonian audience was skeptical at first—after all, an American was telling their nation’s story. But he recalls that the audience soon relaxed and watched the 90-minute film.

When the documentary ended, the Tustys received a 15-minute standing ovation—a rare display of emotion in a society that values circumspect and personal reserve. Tunne Kelam, a founding member of the Estonian National Independence Party, described it as, “A healing film.” Arnold Rüütel, the last chairman of the republic’s Supreme Soviet who became president of independent Estonia, shook Tusty’s hand. “Overall, the reaction of Estonians has been positive,” Tusty said. “I think people liked it because it provided a window into the country for outsiders.”

Longterm impact

“The Singing Revolution” also opened in the United States to positive reviews. “Imagine the scene in ‘Casablanca’ in which the French patrons sing ‘La Marseillaise’ in defiance of the Germans, then multiply its power by a factor of thousands, and you’ve only begun to imagine the force of ‘The Singing Revolution,’” The New York Times reported.

The film played in hundreds of cinema arts houses in the United States, Canada and Europe before it was released on DVD and then widely broadcast on public television in 2011. It even made the 2012 Guinness Book of World Records for being the highest-grossing box office film shot in Estonia.

In 2011, the Tustys hired teachers to develop 25 lesson plans for middle and high school students to use the film to teach subjects ranging from non-violence to totalitarianism. “I think the greatest lasting impact the film will have is its distribution to schools,” Tusty said. Teachers who have used the materials have responded favorably, he said. One teacher who works with at-risk teens in a Vancouver detention facility said her students wanted to “watch it non-stop” and then became deeply engaged with their history class. A teacher in Gadsden, Ala., said she used it in her geography class to discuss peaceful revolutions and the power of individuals to effect positive change.

The Tustys are now involved in producing and directing a new film with the working title of “Songs of Defiance,” which focuses on the Song Festival itself, an event that dates back to the pre-independence period when Estonians lived under Russian Czarist rule. The film tells the story of the festival through the experiences of an American children’s choir from Piedmont, Calif., which performed at the ‘Laulupidu’ in 2009. The Kistlers and Stanford University Libraries helped fund the film, which also received Estonian government backing. Tusty expects to finish the 60-minute documentary this spring. It will premier at the West Coast Estonian Days in San Francisco on June 28-29, 2013, and will be broadcast on public television in the fall.


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