The Singing Revolution - (DVD)

2007. Mountain View Productions. Length: 97 min.

Reviewed by Arle Lommel

[Review length: 979 words • Review posted on October 13, 2009]

By now we all know that the nation is an “imagined community” (per Benedict Anderson). What then to make of the Estonian Laulipidu, a song festival that at times has brought approximately one third of the entire Estonian population together? When over thirty thousand singers gather on stage before an audience of three hundred thousand spectators (who of course also sing along), the nation seems a good deal less abstract than our theories make it (and perhaps even more real than the small communities we love so much).

The Singing Revolution seeks to answer the question posed early on by narrator Linda Hunt: “How is it that culture can save a nation?” It is the nation and national culture that dominates this examination: Estonia as a viable, tangible entity rather than the abstract stuff of theories. It is also a distinctly nineteenth-century notion of culture that speaks directly to the song-language-music-nation nexus at the heart of our scholarly heritage. If Estonia is a nation, the moment of its redemption, as posited in this film, was found in the communal singing of folk songs shared among the people and used to ritually and revolutionarily constitute the nation in the Laulipidu. Heinz Valk, a key figure in the events considered in the film, aptly termed it the “Singing Revolution”: it was explicitly centered in folk song. The film thus provides a valuable examination of the political power of folk song and music at the end of the twentieth century, demonstrating that folklore (as substance rather than discipline) remains a brew of extreme potency that is deeply implicated in modern nations.

The Singing Revolution begins with an account of the history of Estonia, starting with a brief discussion of prehistory and German hegemony over the region followed by the constitution of Estonia as an independent state in 1920. After fewer than two decades of independence and robust economic growth, Estonia was given to the Soviet Union under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, later conquered by the Germans, and then reconquered by the Soviets, with truly horrific loss of life and political and social upheaval at each turn (it is estimated that one quarter of the Estonian population, including most of the intelligentsia, was deported to Siberia, half of them never to return). After the Second World War, Estonia was swallowed by the Soviet Union, which embarked on a period of intense Russification. As a result, over a quarter of the population of Estonia still speaks Russian today, almost twenty years after Estonian independence.

The heart of the film is a discussion of how Estonian nationalist sentiment coalesced around the Laulipidu, escalating in more and more defiant assertions of nationalism that found encouragement in glasnost and perestroika, culminating in a tense stand-off in 1991 that directly contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Watching it, I could not but be struck by the fact that the individual participants in the independence movement faced the potential of severe punishment for such acts as singing folk songs or wearing national costume, but that the nation, as embodied in the masses assembled at the Laulipidu represented something that the Soviet machine simply did not know how to control. It is this sense of the nation that was instrumental in bringing down the hegemony of the Soviet Union. The nation is often depicted in our scholarship as a hegemonic construct, but here we can see it as counter-hegemonic and almost Dionysian in its fecund potential for opposition.

While The Singing Revolution in its theatrical release was not a scholarly production per se, a deluxe educational version with two extra DVDs and an accompanying book by Priit Vesilind provide substantially more material that would be useful to scholars, especially in teaching situations. These include more interviews with key figures in the revolution, Stalinist propaganda films, archival newsreels, and an extended (53-minute) featurette on one of the “forest brothers,” anti-Soviet guerillas who remained active, in some cases, into the 1970s. These items help fill in some of the blanks the 97-minute film could not address.

Even with these materials, one should not look for a scholarly theoretical statement in The Singing Revolution. It is a historical documentary based on interviews with participants in the events it recounts and is thus closer to a primary source than to our more usual materials. That said, it provides an excellent way for classes dealing with nationalism, folk song, commemoration, ethnicity, the politics of folklore, and many other core areas of our discipline to explore and discuss crucial aspects of the field. As such, it should find ready use in undergraduate folklore courses and in graduate seminars dealing with the more particular topics listed above. There are four releases, ranging in price from $26.95 for a home edition to $249.95 for one licensed for use in universities. Although not inexpensive, I feel that this last edition is worth its price in terms of the instructional possibilities it offers.

In closing I must note that while the film is a moving account from the Estonian perspective, I found that I wanted to know more about what has happened to the Russian population of Estonia, a group that went from being a politically dominant force to a minority in just a few years. How have the inherent tensions of having the remnants of a colonizing force been dealt with and what is the current status of the Russian minority? The only real discussion in the film from the Russian perspective is a brief section of an interview with one leader of a Russian political faction that opposed Estonian independence. Here is one area where some viewers might wish for a little more nuance.

Overall The Singing Revolution is a moving account of the liberating role of music in politics. It deserves a place in the teaching repertoire of those interested in many aspects of our field.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.