Monday, May 05, 2008

They sang their way to freedom.

A second film review, in almost as many weeks, will appear to prove false the statement I previously made about not seeing films very often -- at least at the cinema. But it does remain true that this is only the second film I’ve seen in well over a year. And once again it was a pleasure.

The film in question is a documentary called The Singing Revolution produced by Jim and Maureen Tusty.

I pride myself on being rather informed about world events. And certainly, when the Soviet empire was crumbling, I watched events especially carefully. But the “Singing Revolution” in Estonia had entirely escaped my attention. Jim and Maureen, who were at the film showing, said that the “Singing Revolution” was widely ignored everywhere but Estonia itself.

When the Tustys first heard of it they were surprised as well and asked many different people what they knew, only to find out that this was virtually unknown outside Estonia.

The film first briefly introduces us to the tortured history of Estonia, a nation that had repeatedly been conquered and ruled from outside. After only a few brief years of independence the Nazis and the Marxists, allies in murder, decided to divy up Europe. The Soviets marched in and took over. They wiped out freedom and began a genocidal campaign to destroy anyone who might oppose the crazed visions of the socialists.

Then the Nazis marched in and start doing a similar campaign of wiping out anyone they felt might resist their domination. The Nazis were pushed out by the Soviets who resumed their genocide. In a nutshell a lot of Estonians died.

The dream of a free and independent Estonia appeared to be dead. But the Estonian people kept that dream alive through a special aspect of their culture -- singing. They love song festivals and hundreds of thousands of them participte in choral groups. After the Soviet take over a composer introduced a new song to the people -- using the words of an old Estonian poem. It was one that reminded the Estonian people of who they were and that the dream of a free Estonia was alive.

Every year, at the major song festival, people would gather in the thousands to sing this song. The Soviets pushed songs that glorified the communist dictators but people didn’t care. As one particpant put it: “We were willing to sing the crap in order to sing that song at the end.”

Eventually the Soviets caught on and one year the festival was told the song was forbidden. The choir could be as large as 30,000 people on the massive stage with another 100,000 or more in the audience. The conductor was ordered to leave the stage and he did. But the 30,000 choir members stood still. The band was forbidden to play but the choir began singing anyway. Then the band was told to play loudly to sufficate the voices of 30,000 people. But no band can play that loud.

The Soviets realized they had a problem and then told the composer of the song to get up and lead the choir in singing it so they could send the people home.

As the Soviet empire became brittle and about to collapse Estonian desires to be free grew. Various groups were formed to overthrow communist domination of the country. And singing seemed to be a part of all of this. Through mass singing demonstrations, in opposition to communist control, the Estonian people stood up against the Russians as one man.

One music festival of patriotic songs attracted 300,000 participants. That is one out of every three people in the country.

And here is what is so fascinating about the film. While other nations had bloody, violent conflicts with the Marxist dictatorships, the Estonian people responded with song and peaceful protest.

Moscow had flooded Estonia with tens of thousands of Russian citizens to dilute the influence of Estonian pride. The Russians were fearful that the gravy train the communists provided them, at the expense of the Estonian people, was about to end. Thousands of Russians attacked the Estonian parliament in an attempt to take over and throw out any sympathizers with the independence movement.

The violent crowd of Russian communists broke through the gates and were in the courtyard attempting to enter the building and take the Estonian assembly captive. A radio plea went out to the Estonian people urging them to defend their government from the Soviet occupiers. Soon an even larger crowd of Estonians surrounded the building and the Russians found themselves trapped inside the courtyard. Instead of taking the assembly captive they discovered they were captives.

So what did the Estonians do? They chanted and sang and demanded that the Russians leave. The massive crowd of Estonians parted to give the befuddled Soviet puppets an escape route. The Russians, humiliated in defeat, marched out hoping for a military attack by the Soviets.

But Russia was in chaos as communism collapsed under its own dead weight. And the Estonian independence movements became bolder. In Russia communist hardliners took over immediately sent an invasion force to conquer Estonia once again.

Unarmed and non-violently the Estonian people again came out in mass. The main center of attention was the large television tower, the only source of factual news. The Soviets were intent on capturing it and using it to their advantage. Two Estonian police officers were inside the tower to guard it -- just two. And they were prepared to die to keep the Soviets out.

But then thousands and thousands of unarmed Estonians locked arms and stood before the Soviet tanks.They refused to move. A standoff emerged as confused Soviet officers attempted to figure out what to do. Meanwhile in Russian the communist hardliners failed in their coup and soon the Soviet conquering force in Estonia was in flight, tail tucked between their legs.

Over and over the Tustys have accumulated rare original footage of the events. They interview the major particpants and they show how unarmed people, peacefully resisted a tyrannical government. At times the unanimity of the people was awe inspiring.

One protest they showed not only included Estonia, but the conquered nations of Lithuania and Lativia as well. People were asked to form a human chain, hand in hand, against the Soviets. Hundreds of thousands of people participated and did just that. Across the three nations stood one 600 kilometer long chain of determined people.

Throughout this film I was astounded how the Estonians could use, and did use, peaceful, non-violent methods to end Soviet control of their country. This was a beautful film and an inspiring one.

Ayn Rand, a Soviet refuge herself, once said that art is not what is but what is possible. Rarely is life itself art for rarely does life live up to the possible. But this film is history and art. It is art because it shows people at their best -- it extols the best that is within man. Yet it is history as well. It is pure journalism as it tells the truth about what was. Yet in Estonia, for a brief moment the “best that is within” and reality had meet and become one. That is something rare, beautiful and moving and The Singing Revolution captures that..

The Tustys have captured and preserved something very rare and spectacular. They produced a brillant journalistic film which itself portrays life as it could be -- and for one brief moment, was.

I sat in on two Q&A periods with the Tustys and spent about an hour with them after the final performance. I have some idea of the effort and expense they went through in order to produce this film.

They deserve our support. This film is truly a labor of love in every sense of the word. I urge all my readers to go out and see this film if it plays in your area. As more and more cinemas hear of the film it is being extended into new areas so the release of a DVD has been postponed. It now appears the DVD will be available only in August. Once I know of a firm release date from the Tustys I will let my readers know about it.

There is also a hardback book, filled with photos, documenting this story of hope that should be out anytime. I have not seen it yet but if it anything like the film it is a book you will want to have. See this film. Encourage local art cinemas to order it for showings. It is well worth the effort. And when it comes out on DVD you will want a copy. Below is a trailer for the film.

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