Friday, April 18, 2008

The Singing Revolution: How music helped liberate Estonia and the Baltics (review)

Perhaps I would please Donald Trump. Today I “negotiated” my way into a “private screening” of the “The Singing Revolution” set up by the Estonian Embassy. Actually, it was the opening showing in Washington of the documentary that chronicles the lost and regain of independence for Estonia, with a massive song celebration at an ampitheater near the Baltic Sea central to rallying the people.

The film is directed by James Trusty and his wife Maureen Castle Trusty. The director was present for a Q&A afterward. The film score is composed by John Kusiak, but the central piece seems to be a hymn that became the unofficial Estonian national anthem. The composers were listed in the rolling credits but don’t appear on the website as far as I can tell. Actually, Estonia’s best known symphonic composer, Eduard Tubin, is never mentioned, even though many of his best known works (like the 5th Symphony) were composed during Soviet rule.

In fact, this is about song, and group singing, often in unison, straightforward folk melodies with moderate rhythm.

But most of the film gives a rather detailed history of Estonia’s loss of independence before and during World War II, its status as a Soviet republic during the Cold War, and its role in 1991 in the events that eventually led to the implosion and breakup of the Soviet Union into separate sovereign states. The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) were internal Soviet republics and not even theoretically sovereign countries like Poland and Romania. For a time, the Estonians were forced to "sing" the Soviet hymn from "Reds". In 1947, the snuck their own anthem back in under the censors, and the Soviets gradually increased the squeeze over the years; some activists lived in hiding.

Linda Hunt does the narration. The film characterizes Soviet repression under Stalinism as every bit as brutal as Hitler’s. The Nazis controlled Estonia for about three years, and people were carted away for sympathizing with the “other” side. There are a few black and white pictures of Soviet gulags intended to make “proles” of the intellectuals. Over the years, various activists, and sometimes their families, were whisked away. When Mikhail Gorbachev introduced “perestroika” and “glasnost” (with freer speech), the Soviet hold began to weaken. There is one interesting episode where the Estonians could talk about stripmining (shown) because it was just an “environmental” issue.

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