The Film

“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’.

Matt Zoller Seitz
The New York Times

“Inspiring!… Gripping!… A story of how feelings became songs, songs became a national voice, and voice became action!”

Robert Abele
LA Times

“I’d pronounce this unity of the Estonian people as nothing short of extraordinary.”

Harvey Karte

Most people don’t think about singing when they think about revolution. But song was the weapon of choice when Estonians sought to free themselves from decades of Soviet occupation. The Singing Revolution is an inspiring account of one nation’s dramatic rebirth. It is the story of humankind’s irrepressible drive for freedom and self-determination.

The Singing Revolution shares how, between 1987 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly to sing forbidden patriotic songs and share protest speeches, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence. While violence and bloodshed was the unfortunate end result in other occupied nations of the USSR, the revolutionary songs of the Estonians anchored their struggle for freedom, which was ultimately accomplished without the loss of a single life.

The Singing Revolution tells the moving and dramatic story of how the Estonian people peacefully regained their freedom–and helped topple an empire along the way.

“The young people, without any political party, and without any politicians, just came together … not only tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands … to gather and to sing and to give this nation a new spirit,” remarks Mart Laar, a Singing Revolution leader featured in the film and the first post-Soviet Prime Minister of Estonia, “This was the idea of the Singing Revolution.”

The Background

First occupied by the Soviets in 1939, then by the Nazis, and then by the Soviets again, Estonia lived through decades of terror. By the end of World War II, more than one-quarter of the population had been deported to Siberia, been executed, or had fled the country. Music sustained the Estonian people during those years, helping to maintain the Estonian language and sense of culture. It was such a crucial part of their struggle for freedom that their successful bid to re-establish their independence is known as the Singing Revolution.

The Singing Revolution film shares how, between 1987 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly to sing forbidden patriotic songs and share protest speeches, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence.

The subjugation began in Estonia in 1939 with the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Stalin and Hitler that would ignite World War II, to the Siberian Gulag, to the oppressive control tactics of the 1980’s. Estonia ultimately would be occupied for more than 50 years. It had no army, no weapons. Estonians knew they could not gain freedom through force. They had to do it their own way, with their spirit, patience and determination.

By the late-1980’s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to salvage the empire by offering perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (free speech) were backfiring, as Estonians saw the new policies as an opportunity. The nation was simmering with unrest. Momentum built to a crescendo in the summer of 1988 when a rock concert in the capital’s Old Town Square was stopped by Soviet authorities. “The powers in the communist party were afraid because these songs ignited the passions of the people,” recalls artist/activist Heinz Valk.

The crowd walked three miles to a traditional song festival field to continue the concert, and massive crowds gathered for six straight nights to lift hands, sway in unison, and sing illegal patriotic songs. Emboldened, Estonians brought out their old blue-black-and white flags, some from attics and basements where they had been hidden for nearly 50 years. To their own dismay, no one stopped them. For the final night these protest more than 200,000 Estonians gathered.

This was the heart of the “Singing Revolution”. The force of the human voice massed in song was the cultural catalyst that awoke, energized and united the nation of Estonia. It was a political and cultural statement that brought all Estonians together and gave them courage to rebel. After that there was no turning up. Three primary freedom movements, with radically different styles, worked both publicly and surreptitiously to push the Soviet system. A series of clever political maneuvers, combined with ever-growing singing demonstrations, overwhelmed a confused and failing Moscow.

The next few years weighed with threats and violence from the struggling Soviet empire; twenty peaceful demonstrators in Latvia and Lithuania died at the hands of Soviet soldiers and hundreds more were wounded in January of 1991. Estonians feared they were next in line.

Later that same year, on August 19, 1991, a hard-line coup toppled Gorbachev’s government in Moscow, creating chaos – as well as opportunity. The Estonian Soviet parliament united with freedom activist groups and voted unanimously to re-establish Estonia’s independence, not knowing how the coup would be resolved or what the repercussions might be. During the vote, Estonian citizens gathered at the TV tower and radio stations to link arm-in-arm in front of tanks, risking their lives to protect their main source of communication with the outside world. On August 21, 1991 the nightmare of the Soviet Union was over; and Estonia emerged – once again – a free nation.

The Making Of

Interview President Lennart Meri

We are often asked how it came to be that we made this film. This is the story.

Because of Jim’s family heritage, we chose to teach semester-long filmmaking courses at an Estonian university in 1999 and 2001, and that’s how it all began…

While there, we learned about the Singing Revolution. We did not learn about it all at once, but step by step, much as Estonia won its freedom—small step by small step.

By 2003, we were determined to tell this story to the rest of the world. We had found virtually no one outside the Baltics who knew of the Singing Revolution. And yet it was one of the most amazing stories we had ever heard.

Laulupidu, the Estonian song festival held every five years that features 30,000 singers on stage, was to be held in 2004.

Laulupidu played a key role in keeping hope alive during the Soviet occupation, and it was critical to capture it on film. If we missed shooting Laulupidu in 2004, the next festival wouldn’t take place until 2009.

Even without any funds in place, we didn’t want to wait another five years. So we made the decision to shoot for forty days between February and July of 2004, and our film adventure was underway. We were soon assisted with our first funds from Olga and Walter Kistler, followed quickly by additional support from Steve and Karla Jurvetson.

Editing took nearly two years. The story was complicated, and we wanted to get our facts right. Our research for archival footage was also extensive. At times, lack of funding slowed us down, but we never stopped inching ahead as best as we could.

On December 1, 2006, The Singing Revolution premiered at the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia. We had made the film for the rest of the world, but we could think of no better venue for our international premiere.

We were deeply touched by the fifteen-minute standing ovation the Estonian audience gave us.

Please learn about the Singing Revolution. It is not just a story about Estonia—it’s also a story about humankind’s irrepressible drive for freedom and self-determination.

We hope you find The Singing Revolution film to be as inspiring as we found the Singing Revolution itself.

The Filmmakers

James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty (USA)

James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty  are the primary filmmakers of The Singing Revolution. They conceived the film, meticulously researched the subject matter, and worked collaboratively as Producers/Directors/Writers on the project. Prior to The Singing Revolution, they have separately and together produced hundreds of programs, including television programs, TV commercials, and international corporate films. They have shot films in over forty countries around the world, on every continent except Antarctica. Since The Singing Revolution, they founded Sky Films Incorporated, a company dedicated to documentary films that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Sky Films Inc. has produced multiple full-length documentary films for television broadcast: India Awakes, To Breathe as One, Economic Freedom in Action: Changing Lives and Trailblazers: The New Zealand Story (to be released in 2017). Maureen Castle Tusty and James Tusty live in upstate New York with their daughter, two cats, a dog, a lizard and three chickens.

Mike Majoros (USA)

Mike Majoros spent more than a year editing and writing the film. Together with Jim and Maureen, Mike played a major role in shaping the structure of the story…no easy task given the complexity of the history. He shares the Director/Writer credit with the Tustys. Mike has spent the last 20 years making feature-length documentaries about a broad range of subjects: Maasai warriors from Kenya marketing their culture in the US, homeless men surviving on the streets, veterans protesting to raise awareness about the futility of the Vietnam war, and people in wheelchairs confronting an inadequate healthcare system. His work has received dozens of awards, and has been screened internationally at festivals including Sundance and Berlin, as well as on PBS. In 1985, he received his graduate degree from the MIT Media Lab, and later he taught thesis level film production at the Rhode Island School of Design for 15 years. He is currently producing a documentary about nomadic life Mongolia.

Bestor Cram (USA)

Bestor Cram has over twenty years of experience as a director, producer and cinematographer. A friend of the Tustys for decades, Bestor was involved from the very beginning in formulating the creative approach to this story. He founded Northern Light in 1982, and has built it into one of the premiere documentary production companies producing works ranging from broadcast documentaries to historical, dramatic and educational media to Fortune 500 image pieces. As a cinematographer, Bestor has filmed and videotaped for all the major networks. The company has won numerous awards and prizes for its work, and additionally, Bestor has won many grants and prizes for his independent work. His independent film, Unfinished Symphony , premiered at Sundance in the Documentary Competition in 2001 and has won top honors at film festivals around the world. Bestor holds a BA in economics from Denison University, pursued graduate studies at the West Surrey College of Art and Design in Guildford , England , and has taught film at MIT, and the Maine Film & Television Workshops. He is a Vietnam Veteran.

Piret Tibbo-Hudgins (Estonia)

Piret Tibbo-Hudgins (Estonia) worked as a Producer in Estonian state film studio Tallinnfilm after graduating in 1985 from All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow. Piret was the key Estonian producer for The Singing Revolution post-production and distribution. She helped with archival footage, negotiated Estonian contracts, and launched the film very successfully in Estonia. Over a five-year period from 1986-91 she produced three feature films. In the beginning of 90’s she became a freelance filmmaker in different international productions. In 1995 Piret co-founded Allfilm and was a Managing Director of company until 2002. Since 2002 she has been working again as a Producer. For the fourth year, she is lecturing audiovisual management, first at Tallinn University, now at Baltic Film and Media School.

Artur Talvik (Estonia)

Artur Talvik is currently a partner and producer at the production company Ruut. Artur worked closely with the Tustys in the early stages of the project, organizing the first promotional trailer, supervising location shooting in Estonia, and introducing the Tustys to numerous Singing Revolution leaders who ended up in the film. He graduated from the Higher Theatre School of the Estonian Music Academy majoring in acting and has previously worked as a stage actor and a radio reporter, freelanced as a film producer and director and led the Council of the Estonian Film Foundation. Before becoming a partner at Ruut, he was one of the owners of the film studio Allfilm. Talvik has produced and directed more than ten documentary films, more than a hundred commercials, and produced five feature films; among them, the Estonian-German co-production Kõrini! (Fed Up! Ruut/Saxonia Media 2006).