The Singing Revolution is a grand documentary about beautiful souls wresting their country from the grasp of oppression through a display of pure will and song.
Back in 1869 the people of Estonia celebrated the first Laulupidu, a music festival which became a tradition in which, once every five years, 20,000 people share the stage of an enormous outdoor amphitheater and sing.
The Singing Revolution cuts between modern day rehearsals for the next festival and historic footage of the events that led to the 1988 revolution. Along the way are some interesting little facts: did you know that the tiny country of Estonia has one of the world’s largest collections of folk songs? More importantly, this documentary tells some fantastic stories about some fantastic people overcoming what would, to many, be considered insurmountable odds.
After centuries of occupation, the country finally gained its independence in 1920, only to have it stolen away again, at the hands of Hitler and Stalin, less than two decades later. Estonia became a prized battleground for the Nazis and the Soviets, with one practically trampling over the other on Estonian soil.
With the Nazis routed after World War II, the Russians returned and staked their claim to the territory. At one point there were 80,000 Russian soldiers in Estonia. That equates to one soldier for every 12 Estonians.
What followed were decades of oppression and The Singing Revolution interviews many who were either sent to Siberia personally or had close relatives carted away in servitude.
Pride: In the Name of Love
Nestled against the western border of Russia and due south of Finland, Estonia is one of the Baltic states, along with Latvia and Lithuania. The country boasts some beautiful scenery and the people are proud — very proud — of their heritage and culture. With the United States continuously descending into a massive free for all which some say should be celebrated as “diversity,” it’s refreshing to see a people take pride in their very own history and culture.
As the documentary begins, it is noted that the Estonian hero is not the dragon slayer, but rather the cautious barn keeper, the one who waits, watches, and then acts only when the time is right. “Patience is a weapon, caution a virtue,” Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously), the narrator, comments.
That sense of patience pays off, in time, for the good people of Estonia.
Even as the Soviets tried to turn the Estonian Laulupidu festival into a glorious display of Communist harmony for the entire world to see, the Estonians had a different idea. At the close of each festival, they’d sing their favorite folk songs in their native Estonian language and, thrown into the mix, a new song based on an old poem. Mu isamaa on minu arm (Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love) by Dr. Gustav Ernesaks, an unabashed love song to their former country, would become their unofficial national anthem.
Surviving under decades of oppression, the Estonians waited, watched, sang, and then, when the time was right, they acted.
The window of opportunity presented itself when Mikhail Gorbachev promised the world glasnost and perestroika. With openness — essentially a sense of free speech — freshly in the picture, some Estonians seized their own opportunity to stage a protest against Soviet plans for a mine in Estonia. It was a protest that could be carefully shrouded in the guise of environmental preservation rather than political rebellion.
From there, the movement grew and the singing rang out louder and louder. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which neatly divided up European territories between the Nazis and the Soviets, Estonians formed a 600 KM human chain, holding hands across the county in the ultimate display of human unity.
And loopholes presented themselves to those who did their research and thought things through. Yes, Estonians were all issued Soviet passports, but they never claimed Soviet citizenship. The realization led to a registration drive in which, within a matter of months, an astounding 860,000 Estonians (that accounted for almost every adult in the country) registered as a citizen of Estonia.
That craftiness and a mounting spirit of civil disobedience takes center stage in The Singing Revolution, but there are also tales of physical endurance as recounted by forest soldiers and survivors of Siberia.
Even as all of this information is presented through many heartfelt interviews and recollections, The Singing Revolution is a subtle piece of work and the more one pays attention, the better it gets.
Perhaps as a reflection of the Estonians’ level-headed and down-to-earth ways, The Singing Revolution stays focused on the story at hand. But, at the film’s end, mini-biographies of many of the key interviewees are presented. At first it seems like it should be standard, simple “where are they now” kind of information, but instead there’s some truly astounding pieces of information for many of them that would have been much better served as introductory material rather than stashed away as an epilogue.
For example, “After losing an arm and fighting in the forest for 8 years, Alfred Kaarmann served 15 years in prison followed by 14 years in exile. His fiancé waited for him, but the Soviet authorities never allowed them to marry.”
And there’s also this one: “Mart Laar was a student activist who later led The Heritage Society with Trivimi Velliste. In 1992, at age 32, he became Estonia’s first freely elected Prime Minister since the Soviet occupation.”
As if the preceding 90 minutes didn’t offer enough inspirational stories of beautiful souls surviving ugly circumstances and making amazing things happen, regardless of age, it really turns out The Singing Revolution was simply scratching the surface.