When James and Maureen Tusty went to the Eastern European country of Estonia in 1999, they hadn’t heard of its singing revolution. Nor had many of their friends. In fact, it seemed the story hadn’t left the Baltic region at all.
But it was a story that blew the couple away, thanks to a combination of its immensity and Estonians’ quietness about it. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, its residents gathered to sing protest songs in massive, nonviolent demonstrations, imploring the Soviet Union to grant the country independence.
“We just felt really compelled to make the film,” James Tusty said. “If not now, when, and if not us, who?”
The Tustys were in Estonia to teach filmmaking; they decided to make a film about the events. The Singing Revolution was released in the United States at the end of 2007, and the Tustys will be on hand for a Saturday screening at the Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock at 3 p.m. It’s part of the 4th Annual Woodstock Vermont Film Series, which will run through April.
James Tusty gave three reasons for the obscurity of the story:
∎ Estonia is a small country. Official statistics put its 2012 population at 1.3 million, approximately the same as New Hampshire.
∎ Estonians despise bragging “more than any culture I have ever dealt with,” Tusty said.
∎ The revolution wasn’t violent.
Which means it wasn’t televised. “Had there been an event where five people were shot, it would have made the news,” Tusty said. But five people weren’t shot — no one died over the course of the revolution — and so, outside of a 2 million-person human chain connecting the Soviet-controlled Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1989, it wasn’t reported on.
“Estonians had every right to get violent,” Tusty said. “They had every reason to get violent, but they didn’t.”
Nonviolence prevailed, and the protest often took the form of song. The bedrock of the revolution was the enormous Estonian Song Festival known as Laulupidu, in which an auditioned chorus of about 30,000 sings to an audience about triple that size. The event began in 1869 as a method of unification for Estonians, featuring primarily traditional folk songs, and has been held every five years since, more or less. (Its first go, when the country was under the rule of Czarist Russia, had a relatively paltry 845 singers.)
Then, through the 1980s and 1990s, when five years of planning led to the singing of one gigantic, unified protest song, the festival helped keep the country’s hope alive, Tusty said. “Laulupidu is the underpinning,” he said. “It’s the cultural basis on which people unite. It was the glue that held the country together during the most oppressive years.”
Those years were earlier in the century, when Estonia was caught between the expanding Nazi Germany and Soviet Union, and then spent years under Stalin’s rule. Laulupidu was a means of preserving a national identity. The Tustys filmed the 2004 festival for The Singing Revolution. James Tusty likened the experience to listening to professional singers filling half of Yankee Stadium. The directors will release a documentary about the logistics behind the festival, To Breathe As One, later this year.
The revolution, though, didn’t operate wholly by the tidal wave of emotion that is Laulupidu. Different groups within Estonia advocated for different methods of gaining independence, from those basically grinning and bearing it to those advocating something more extreme than nonviolence. The nonviolence, though, won out. Estonia was granted independence in 1991 as the Soviet empire collapsed.
Tusty doesn’t view the film as an advocacy documentary similar to several popular muckraking features of recent years. Because the story of the singing revolution had been under wraps for so long, Tusty said he felt the film needed to function as a historical document.
“In some ways it’s going to be the definitive statement about that time period,” he said.
And so he and Maureen screened early cuts of the film for leaders of three distinct Estonian organizations, each with different views on the events that transpired years before, and made changes to keep the point of view as fair as possible. Not that it was easy, Tusty said — he compared the process to a mythical documentary about the 2000 presidential election that would satisfy both George W. Bush and Al Gore.
While getting it right was paramount, though, the Tustys wanted to strike a tone different from many documentaries. They wanted to show something positive, rather than expose something negative.
“We want to do films that make people appreciate the power of the human spirit,” he said.
By Jon Wolper