Music as the fuel of freedom
TRIBUNE REPORTER'THE SINGING REVOLUTION' ***
The Baltic states don't get much respect in modern history lessons. In fact, the brutal, decades-long Soviet occupation of the Baltics -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- is hardly mentioned. Ditto the countries' paths to independence: While Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution elicits a nod of recognition, Estonia's Singing Revolution will get you a blank stare.
Before you start feeling too guilty about your inadequate education, take heart: In 1999, filmmaker James Tusty (whose father was born in Estonia) was similarly in the dark. He only learned the dramatic story of the uprising against the Soviet Union when he and his wife (fellow filmmaker Maureen Castle Tusty) moved to Estonia to teach.
The process -- meticulous research, emotional interviews -- took four years, and resulted in "The Singing Revolution," an intensely earnest yet undeniably stirring history of the Estonians' struggle to overthrow the Soviet occupation without raising a weapon other than their voices.
The documentary provides ample historical background, in the form of Linda Hunt's elegant narration; here's an extremely abbreviated version: Estonia was occupied by various nations from the 13th Century until 1918, when it achieved independence. That freedom was brief; in 1938 the Soviets moved in, eventually handing over control to the Nazis, then regaining it after Germany's defeat.
The ensuing decades were marked by censorship, mass executions and gratuitous deportations of thousands of Estonians to gulags -- the Siberian labor camps where many prisoners died from overwork. In other words, Estonians suffered under the same horrible conditions inflicted on every country trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
It was their response to the oppression that set the Estonians apart. Through repeated occupations, Estonians have depended on music, and singing in particular, to affirm their national identity and raise their spirits.
In 1869, Estonia held its first national song festival, or Laulupidu. One hundred years later, the festival gave Estonians their first opportunity to brazenly defy the Soviets by singing their banned national anthem. Later, as the calls for independence grew louder, smaller music festivals provided a platform for organizing rallies and peaceful protests.
The music, which is woven through the interviews, news clips and photographs, consists primarily of Estonian traditional songs. The lyrics are provided as subtitles, but they're hardly necessary; the expressions of the singers -- by turns joyful, terrified and defiant -- tell the story more eloquently than any words could.
As far as the plot goes, widespread lack of familiarity with Estonia's recent history actually works in the film's favor: Suspense born of ignorance lends the unfolding drama the urgency of a political thriller. The Tustys' interviews, meanwhile, are perhaps slightly too exhaustive, covering the same ground several times. Their subjects, however, rarely disappoint, from a former resistance fighter who recalls living in a dirt hole in the woods for eight years, to young couples whose grandparents or parents were deported or murdered by the Soviets.
"The Singing Revolution" is an undeniably important film, but that shouldn't scare anyone off. Despite its weighty subject matter, the movie never feels like work.
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No MPAA rating: In a statement on their web site, the filmmakers advise against bringing children younger than 9 or 10 to the film. There are some scenes of historical violence.
Opening: Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Running time: 1:35.
Directed by: James Tusty, Maureen Castle Tusty and Mike Majoros; screenplay by the Tustys and Majoros; photographed by Miguelangel Aponte-Rios; edited by Majoros; music by John Kusiak; produced by James and Maureen Tusty, Bestor Cram, Artur Talvik, Piret Tibbo-Hudgins and Thor Halvorssen. A Mountain View Productions release.