" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

Sponsored links

“We are so few in numbers that we must emphasize that we exist!”

— Venno Laul, Estonian Conductor

The Singing Revolution is a grand documentary about beautiful souls wringing their country from the grasp of oppression through a display of pure will and song.

Laulupidu

3-DVD set delves deeply into history
3-DVD set delves deeply into history

Back in 1869 the people of Estonia celebrated the first Laulupidu, a music festival which became a tradition in which, once every five years, 20,000-30,000 people share the stage of an enormous outdoor amphitheatre and sing.

The Singing Revolution cuts between modern day rehearsals for the next festival and historic footage of the events that led to the revolution. Along the way are some interesting little facts, such as that the tiny country of Estonia has one of the world’s largest collections of folk songs. But more importantly, this documentary tells some fantastic stories about some fantastic people overcoming what would, to many, be considered insurmountable circumstances.

After centuries of occupation, the country finally gained its independence in 1920, only to have it stolen away again, at the hands of Hitler and Stalin, less than two decades later. Estonia became a prized battleground for the Nazis and the Soviets, with one practically trampling over the other on Estonian soil.

With the Nazis routed after World War II, the Russians returned and staked their claim to the territory. At one point there were 80,000 Russian soldiers in Estonia. That equates to one soldier for every 12 Estonians.

What followed were decades of oppression and The Singing Revolution interviews many who were either sent to Siberia personally or had close relatives carted away in inhumane servitude.

Pride: In the Name of Love

Nestled against the western border of Russia and due south of Finland, Estonia is one of the Baltic states, along with Latvia and Lithuania. The country boasts some beautiful scenery and the people are proud — very proud — of their heritage and culture. With the United States continuously descending into a massive free for all which some say should be celebrated as “diversity,” it’s refreshing to see a people take pride in their very own history and culture.

As the documentary begins, it is noted that the Estonian hero is not the dragon slayer, but rather the cautious barn keeper, the one who waits, watches, and then acts only when the time is right. “Patience is a weapon, caution a virtue,” Linda Hunt ( The Year of Living Dangerously), the narrator, comments.

That sense of patience pays off, in time, for the good people of Estonia.

Even as the Soviets tried to turn the Estonian Laulupidu festival into a glorious display of Communist harmony for the entire world to see, the Estonians had a different idea. At the close of each festival, they’d sing their favorite folk songs in their native Estonian language and, thrown into the mix, a new song based on an old poem. Mu isamaa on minu arm ( Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love) by Dr. Gustav Ernesaks, an unabashed love song to their former country, would become their unofficial national anthem.

Surviving under decades of oppression, the Estonians waited, watched, sang, and then, when the time was right, they acted.

Openness

The window of opportunity presented itself when Mikhail Gorbachev promised the world glasnost and perestroika. With openness — essentially a sense of free speech — freshly in the picture, some Estonians seized their own opportunity to stage a protest against Soviet plans for a mine in Estonia. It was a protest that could be carefully shrouded in the guise of environmental preservation rather than political rebellion.

From there, the movement grew and the singing rang out louder and louder. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which neatly divided up European territories between the Nazis and the Soviets, Estonians formed a 600 KM human chain, holding hands across the county in the ultimate display of human unity.

And loopholes presented themselves to those who did their research and thought things through. Yes, Estonians were all issued Soviet passports, but they never claimed Soviet citizenship. The realization led to a registration drive in which, within a matter of months, an astounding 860,000 Estonians (that accounted for almost every adult in the country) registered as a citizen of Estonia.

That craftiness and a mounting spirit of civil disobedience takes center stage in The Singing Revolution, but there are also tales of physical endurance as recounted by forest soldiers and survivors of Siberia.

Even as all of this information is presented through many heartfelt interviews and recollections, The Singing Revolution is a subtle piece of work and the more one pays attention, the better it gets.

Epilogue

25,000 Estonians sing for their freedom
25,000 Estonians sing for their freedom

Perhaps as a reflection of the Estonians’ level-headed and down-to-earth ways, The Singing Revolution stays focused on the story at hand. But, at the film’s end, mini-biographies of many of the key interviewees are presented. At first it seems like it should be standard, simple “where are they now” kind of information, but instead there’s some truly astounding pieces of information for many of them that would have been much better served as introductory material rather than stashed away as an epilogue.

For example, “After losing an arm and fighting in the forest for 8 years, Alfred Kaarmann served 15 years in prison followed by 14 years in exile. His fiancé waited for him, but the Soviet authorities never allowed them to marry.”

And there’s also this one: “Mart Laar was a student activist who later led The Heritage Society with Trivimi Velliste. In 1992, at age 32, he became Estonia’s first freely elected Prime Minister since the Soviet occupation.”

As if the preceding 90 minutes didn’t offer enough inspirational stories of beautiful souls surviving ugly circumstances and making amazing things happen, regardless of age, it really turns out The Singing Revolution was simply scratching the surface. The Collector’s Edition 1.0 DVD set goes into far greater detail on the events and the people; it’s a valuable package that is unlike standard Hollywood “deluxe edition” sets.

DVD Extras

The supplemental materials on the “Collector’s Edition 1.0” DVD release are phenomenal and, spanning some 6 ½ hours of additional content, the list is extensive. Clearly designed with classroom use in mind, the “Collector’s Edition 1.0” set is available from singingrevolution.com, where two different educational packages are also available. Those versions offer the same content, but also provide varying levels of licensing for use in schools, civic organizations, and general public screenings. There is also a single-disc “home” edition.

The extent of the materials made available in the three-disc set is astounding and they go well beyond the music festival and singing revolution itself. It’s a real treasure trove that will add value to any classroom discussions surrounding this epoch in history, but more significantly, there are also items here that will give history buffs goose bumps.

As I predicted above, the movie was only scratching the surface of its subject matter. This DVD set supports that comment with some incredible stories and interviews. Surely putting this all together in one theatrical presentation would be more than unwieldy and exhausting, so being able to absorb the supplemental materials at a more leisurely pace is one of this set’s big benefits.

If this was a typical studio release, the bulk of the features could be considered “deleted scenes.” They’re a massive assembly of interviews, newsreel footage, and even a couple complete music segments from the festival.

Here are a few of the major additions that should not be missed:

For starters, there’s Alfred Kaarmann. It’s an ongoing joke passed from older generations to younger that the older generation had to walk to school, uphill both ways, in the snow, barefoot, and so on. Well, if ever there was a person who could lay claim to a life far more challenging than most will ever have to comprehend, it would be Alfred Kaarmann. The 50-minute extended interview ( Forest Brother Alfred Kaarmann Extended Story), found on Disc Two, wherein he recounts his hellacious experiences during and after World War II is humbling and an absolute must-watch. Take note that, amidst all the things Alfred endured, he still explains at one point that those who were caught by the Communists had a much harder life than he had. A man like Alfred deserves a special salute and this expanded segment on his experiences is simply a step in the right direction.

On Disc Three, there are two complete songs from the 2004 festival, which are prefaced by interviews that explain how this event differs from western music festivals like Slane and SXSW. On tap, albeit only in Dolby Digital 2.0 but with subtitled lyrics, are Beautiful Land and Kikilips, the “Bow Tie” song shown in rehearsal in the feature documentary. Some things simply shouldn’t be sugar coated and this is such a case. To not watch these would be foolish.

The feature-length running commentary by the Tustys on Disc One is well worth a listen. Among the interesting tidbits are how they followed a formal structure in the film by showing the Germans moving right to left while the Russians move left to right, even if that meant flipping the film image. There are also good anecdotes and observations about the forest brothers and other historical facts. One minor qualm with the track: The film’s soundtrack plays continuously in the background and can sometimes be distracting. It would’ve been better had the original soundtrack been muted then the volume raised when the film’s content is called out by the filmmakers.

The gallery of “Production Stills and Select Photos” on Disc Two is extensive. It includes historic photos, portraits, and behind-the-scenes snapshots, including a photo of the Tustys standing under a movie theatre marquee displaying The Singing Revolution and3:10 to Yuma.

Discs Two and Three include a stunning collection of printable documents and maps available via DVD-ROM. As a very high-level example of the breadth of this material, there’s an item entitled “1941 Executions in Kuressaare Castle,” which features an article from the Sept. 13, 1988, Saaramaa newspaper. Another, entitled “The Fate of Professor Ants Piip,” was pulled from the Estonian Soviet Encyclopedia. There are also minutes from the 1939 Estonian-Soviet negotiations and the complete 1920 Treaty of Tartu, which includes an image of the original signature page.

There’s also a “Letter to the West” from a political prisoner dated, ironically for us Americans, on July 4, 1986.

The maps on Disc Three are provided in PowerPoint format. More universal access would be gained if they were PDFs, like the rest of the printable documentation. And, again on a more technical level, while the video items are nicely broken out by period and content, a “Play All” menu option would be helpful.

Those are minor quibbles to be sure, but worth noting.

Picture and Sound

The technical quality of this release is top notch. The image quality is surprisingly strong and the movie’s festival scenes benefit nicely from the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (a Dolby 2.0 track is also available).

How to Use This DVD

Watch the documentary. Then do yourself a favor and be sure to watch Forest Brother Alfred Kaarmann Extended Story on Disc Two. Also go to Disc Three and watch Importance of the Song Festival/Laulupidu and2004 Song Festival Performances. Then dine off the set’s massive buffet, feasting on the subjects that draw your attention from the complete list of contents.