July 12, 2008

Review: ‘The Singing Revolution’

By Michael Machosky, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 12--"The Singing Revolution" is an inspiring, fairytale-like account of how music helped save an entire culture, and helped overthrow an occupation by one of the repressive regimes in history.

This documentary tells the story of Estonia, a small nation on the Baltic Sea, with the eternal misfortune of being stuck between the expansionist empires of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

The Baltic Sea nation only had about a million people when the Soviets first invaded in 1939, followed by Hitler's invasion in 1941, and the Soviet re-invasion when the Nazis crumbled.

As the Iron Curtain quickly closed over Estonia, censorship and propaganda replaced all vestiges of Estonian culture -- except one.

An annual song festival, held every year since the 1800s, draws tens of thousands from every corner of the country. Song is a part of every Estonian's life -- from childhood, one of the world's largest repertoires of folk songs is passed down through families, culminating in the yearly gathering, where as many as 30,000 singers can share the stage, singing as one.

Though forced to sing Soviet songs, the Estonians were given a small window of opportunity to sing their own songs on the third day of the festival. So an old poem was put to music, "My Fatherland is My Love" -- and the anthem of "The Singing Revolution" was born.

With no weapons but song, Estonians pushed for their independence. Some gatherings could draw as many as a third of the country. They sang even when they knew KGB agents were watching, even with Soviet tanks in the streets.

In one amazing scene, Russian mobs stormed the rebellious Estonian Parliament. A call for help went out, and soon thousands of singing Estonians surrounded the building. Then the vast crowd parted, and the Russians fled.

There's plenty of excellent color archival footage, striking a nice balance with the talking-head interviews. Amazing characters abound, many of whom suffered decades of exile in Siberia for crimes as trivial as having a mother who was a nurse in the former Estonian army.

--Harris Theater, Downtown


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