Estonia: Banned choral singing became a Singing Revolution


“A single nation. A million voices. An unstoppable dream…”   The documentary film ‘The Singing Revolution’ shows how choral music played an imporant role in the small Baltic country’s struggle against its occupation by the former Soviet Union.

Most people don’t think about singing when they think about revolutions. But song was the weapon of choice when, between 1986 and 1991, Estonians sought to free themselves from decades of Soviet occupation. During those years, hundreds of thousands gathered in public to sing forbidden patriotic songs and to rally for independence.

“The young people, without any political party, and without any politicians, just came together … not only tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands … to gather and to sing and to give this nation a new spirit,” remarks Mart Laar, a Singing Revolution leader featured in the film and the first post-Soviet Prime Minister of Estonia. “This was the idea of the Singing Revolution.”

The centerpiece of the documentary film is a historic gathering in Estonia in 1969 when thousands of Estonians at a music festival defied the ban of a song which had become an unofficial national anthem, ‘Mu isamaa on minu arm’, or ‘Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love’ – written in 1947 with the lyrics from a traditional Estonian poem. They defiantly sang this song over and over again, even as the Soviet officials tried to shut the event down, and then tried to have the orchestra drown them out. They just kept singing it until the officials gave up and just let them go on singing.

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Choir festival tradition
Since 1869, Estonians have held massive song festivals where 25,000 to 30,000 people sing on stage at the same time. Choirs from around the country come together to sing for days. The song festival tradition is called Laulupidu, and according to the producers of ‘The Singing Revolution’, the founding of Laulupidu was as much an expression of the desire for self-determination and independence as about song.

“Choirs and singers have to audition, and the end result is stunning to see and hear,” write the producers of the film on their home page,, which contains background information about the film, the Estonian music, the film’s music score, as well as the history of Estonia, and with several examples of the music in MP3-format for download.

Estonians have historically used music as a political weapon as well. It is said that song was used in protest of the German invaders of the 13th century, and also in resistance to the Russian occupation under Peter the Great in the 18th century.

Understand Estonia through its music
“In the late 1980’s music was once again used as a unifying force when hundreds of thousands gathered to sing forbidden Estonian songs, demanding their right for self-determination from a brutal Soviet occupier. To truly understand Estonia, one must understand Estonian music,” writes the film’s producer-couple, James and Maureen Tusty, on

They got inspired to make the film during the couple’s stay in Estonia in 1999-2001 where they were teaching semester-long filmmaking courses at an Estonian university. Using very rare archival footage and interviews with key newsmakers, the 96-minutes film is tied together by the narration of Academy Award-winning actress Linda Hunt. It took them four years to complete the work, together with their team of film makers and producers.

James Tusty’s father came to the US as a child from Estonia in 1924. James Tusty was raised with English as his primary language. In an interview by Jim Morekis, the film producer said that when he first heard about the socalled Singing Revolution, he remembered thinking that as far as he could tell no one else knew about this. “And while we all like to make fun of the American media and how poorly informed Americans are, I can tell you for a fact that no one in Western Europe has heard of the Singing Revolution either,” he said.

A testament
“It’s the epic story of the Soviet occupation in Estonia. We cover 1939-1986 in about 25 minutes, and you absolutely need that. Then we spend the rest of the film, about 65 minutes, on the Singing Revolution itself and these amazing events. The challenge was that there’s no one Estonian leader to point to, so we couldn’t do your standard personality film. In fact the film consists of about 30 people we interviewed, but none are up there predominantly.
I’ve never seen a film where the hero is an entire country. It’s a testament to the Estonian people and how they handled themselves. Under the most dire confrontations they would remain nonviolent,” said James Tusty.

The archival footage in the film was compiled from the film archives of Estonia and Russia, independent filmmaker recordings, Soviet newsreels, home super 8 movies, home VHS tapes in PAL format, and Estonian Television footage – all together 80 hours of new footage, 10 hours of archival footage, and over 400 photographs.

Premiere in Europe and USA
‘The Singing Revolution’ has had special screenings for the European Union Parliament and the U.S. Congress, and according to James Tusty it has had ‘a phenomenal response’ in Europe so far. When ‘The Singing Revolution’ premiered at the Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia in February 2007 it received an unprecedented 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to become the most successful documentary film in Estonian box-office history.

The official North American release is 7 December 2007 in Los Angeles, followed by 14 December at the Village East in New York City. Several more American cities will follow after that, determined by the number of sign-ups the film gets on its website. People can enter their e-mail address and zipcode, and once the film gets 1,500 sign-ups in an area, it can be released there. “This is truly a grassroots effort and the sign-ups really do matter,” explained Maureen Castle Tusty to Freemuse.

‘The Singing Revolution’ screens at the Savannah Film Festival in Georgia, USA, on 30 October 2007 at 11:30 p.m. at the Trustees Theatre and 2 November 2007 at 9:30 a.m. at the Lucas Theatre. It is shown in Beverly Hills, California, in Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 Theater on 7-13 December 2007. Check the list of current screenings, and enter your sign-up, on the film’s website:


“I saw The Singing Revolution movie a few weeks ago at a film festival in Los Angeles. This documentary is very well done and incredibly moving. It’s a truly inspirational story about quest for freedom WITHOUT any suicide bombers or explosives with beautiful choral music throughout the movie. I recommend this film wholeheartedly to anyone interested in history, culture, music, political science – or curious about what was going on in the Baltics and elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain.”
‘shewantsnorevenge’, Los Angeles, California




“Four years in the making, ‘The Singing Revolution’ is a moving, intensely human testament to the sustaining power of hope and the motivating strength of song. The film reflects the indomitable human drive for personal freedom, political independence, and self-determination…”

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“There are many breathless moments in the film.”
Rein Veidemann, Postimees

“[It] will unquestionably have the effect of strengthening the belief in freedom on the part of anybody who watches it.”
Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate

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“We prepared five years for this song festival, the main purpose of which really was to come together as a nation, and sing this one forbidden song…”
Heinz Valk, activist who coined the term ‘Singing Revolution’

“The Estonian nation is very small and we have no more weapons than singing. This being together, singing together, this was our power…”
Toomas and Anne Raudberg, Singing Revolution participants

 About the producers

Prior to ‘The Singing Revolution’, James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty have separately and together produced hundreds of programmes, including television programmes, tv commercials, and corporate films for some of the largest corporations in the world including Coca-Cola, GE, and IBM.

Maureen’s work has been seen on US public television and she is an adjunct faculty member of Tallinn University in Estonia, where she teaches film production.

Jim has prior experience with Eastern European production. He produced several Russian language programs for McGraw-Hill that were shot in multiple locations in Russia in 1986 and 1988, and immediately after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, he produced a 15-part series on free market economics for Hungarian television.

Maureen Castle Tusty and James Tusty together run Mountain View Productions under which banner ‘The Singing Revolution’ was produced.




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James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty have extensive international experience, having shot films in over 30 countries around the world.


Connect Savannah Online – 23 october 2007:
‘Film Festival: When music & politics collide’



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