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The Singing Revolution keeps on singing

Posted at 5:28 PM on December 16, 2008 by Euan Kerr

Director Jim Tusty's film "The Singing Revolution" blew through the Twin Cities earlier this year, and reportedly chalked up big box office for a documentary, particularly screening in the summer.

However Tusty is working hard to make sure even more people see it. It's the story of how the people of Estonia struggled for independence for decades after first being invaded by the Germans at the start of World War II and then the Russians, who stayed until the fall of the Soviet system in the early 1990's.

Tusty (left) is of Estonian descent, but he says he didn't really appreciate the importance of the story until he and his wife Maureen, the film's co-producer, went to teach there in 1999. He says the determination of the Estonian people to escape from the suffocating grip of Moscow, and the way they refused to back down after seizing the opportunities offered by glasnost under Gorbachev played an important role in bringing about the Soviet collapse.

"We did not make the film because my father was Estonian," Tusty says. "We made the film because we thought it was an amazing, amazing, story and we are storytellers."

Central to the story is singing, mainly because singing is central to Estonian culture. Perched on the edge of the Baltic Estonia is one of the smallest countries in Europe, but it has one of the largest number of folk songs in the world.

"Singing for a long time has been used in resistance to occupiers, either in resistance or as a means of expressing national unity amongst themselves," Tusty says. Every five years the Estonians hold a huge National Songfest which culminates with a choir of 30,000 people on a specially built outdoor stage singing for huge crowds who gather to listen and join in.

"In the mid-80's when Gorbachev announced perestroika and glasnost the Estonians having been occupied by the Soviets for nearly 50 years by that point, decided it was time to act, that the door was opened a crack and they were going to burst through it, And singing was the natural way to express themselves, almost in code you might say," Tusty says.

The Estonians had for years sung a song "Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love" which was understood by the Communist authorities to be a song about the glories of Estonian socialism, but in reality was a rousing chorus about nationalism and independence.

"Most often during the Soviet years that song was not only sung by the 30,000 people on stage, it was sung by the several hundred thousand people in the audience," he says.

"It sounds incredulous to say that singing faced down tanks and won, Tusty continues, "and that is an over-simplification of what happened. What the singing did do is it mobilized the people, it energized them, it gave them power. It allowed the Estonians and gave them courage to take on other actions, political actions, street theater, protests, all sorts of actions to stand up against the Soviets."

Jim and Maureen Tusty were able to use archive footage of the events leading up to the re-establishment of independence for Estonia, but they faced a problem in getting interviews for the film. The movement had no central leader, or even central organizing group. There were three central groups.

"The leaders emerged" Jim Tusty said. "They didn't start it. There was no one hero." There were a number of political organizations all intent on the same goal but using very different approaches. The Tustys ended up interviewing more than 40 people, and used about 25 in the film. That posed a challenge from a film making point of view of getting is to flow and to hang together. Then there was the challenge of getting the story right.

"There is no doubt history is a matter of interpretation," Tusty says. However he stresses they didn't want to push a particular version of what happened so Tusty says they did something he believes is quite unique.

"One of our techniques was, as we had work edits completed, we would fly to Estonia, and we did this three or four times, and we would would sit down with each of these different movements, alone, without the other people in the room, show them the film and encourage any comments." They encouraged people to talk about about facts and the tone.

They considered every comment, researched it and then reached their own conclusion about the interpretations of events and individual facts and then they adapted their film as necessary. He says in the end all sides agreed the film was balanced.

"So I dare say it was exactly equivalent to if we had done a film on the 2000 Florida recount in the US, showed the film to Al Gore and George Bush and got them both to say 'Yes, that's what happened,'" Tusty says.

The film is still screening in theaters around the country, and now Tusty is focusing on promoting the DVD. "I think we still have another good year or two of work" he says. They haven't broken even on the project yet, although he says he is mainly driven by the desire to tell the story.

They have developed a three disc educational version of the film which they hope to get out to schools which includes many extra hours of tape, both new and archive.

You can hear my conversation with Jim Tusty in two parts. Listen here for the history behind the Singing Revolution and Listen here for his thoughts on the challenges of making and distributing the film.

And here is the trailer:

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