In a moment of cinematic synchronicity, this documentary about the long struggle for Estonian independence arrives in theaters at a time when Russian tanks are rolling across the declared border of Georgia, another former state of the Soviet Union. The timing provides an added resonance to The Singing Revolution, a sobering reminder that history is not a distant past captured in amber, but a record of the shifts and upheavals that affect the lives of people and leave aftershocks for generations to come.
The married team of Maureen Castle and James Tusty began working on their first feature documentary after teaching filmmaking in Estonia, and their collaboration (with editor Mike Majoros) shows the sure hand of television veterans. Their backgrounds making numerous commercials, corporate films and documentary series allow them to succinctly capture in a brisk 96 minutes the history and culture of a small country whose patient, determined people have held on to their national character in large part through folk songs.
The Singing Revolution opens with footage of a post-independence Laulupidu, the Song Festival where upward of 20,000 singers perform a cappella, and begins to convey just how ingrained folk music is in Estonia, located on the Baltic Sea and roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Singing in choirs is not just a cherished and unifying tradition, but a way to maintain their language (which is similar to Finnish).
Hearing those tens of thousands of Estonians perform in perfect harmony is enough to induce goose bumps, but it's only part of this enlightening story. As Linda Hunt asserts in her narration, singing has been credited with saving not just the Estonian soul, but freeing the country from Soviet domination. A heady assertion to be sure, but the Tustys make a solid case for liberation through song.
While relating a litany of Estonian oppression, the filmmakers sometimes skirt agitprop, yet their interview subjects speak with such straightforward openness that it's easy to forgive the one-sided nature of the discussion. The Singing Revolution is most interesting when, after defining moments of national unity, the Estonians suffer setbacks and internal strife that threaten to derail their progress
A massive crowd that wants to sing the same song is impossible to stop, observes one interviewee, but a people who greet tanks with only their unified defiance and stubborn assertion of a long-denied identity, now that's a sight to see.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
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